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Kim Namseok, Munhwa Ilbo Correspondent
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This article originally appeared in the Korean daily newspaper Munhwa Ilbo on January 2, 2023. It was translated from Korean by Raymond Ha.

In an exclusive interview for the Munhwa Ilbo, Stanford University professors Gi-Wook Shin and Francis Fukuyama had a conversation on a wide range of topics including the war in Ukraine, U.S.-China competition, and North Korea policy.

The world faces a crisis of political leadership as each country pursues its own interests. Fukuyama stressed the importance of robust international institutions, instead of relying solely on great leaders. He pointed to NATO and the U.S.-Korea alliance as examples of institutions that uphold the liberal international order. In terms of the U.S.-China competition, he said without hesitation that “a democracy like Korea…has to make the decision that it is going to be on the side of democracy.” Fukuyama also noted that in the event of an armed confrontation over Taiwan, Korea would almost certainly be pulled in, given the significant U.S. military presence there. He was skeptical about prospects for progress over North Korea, pointing to the long history of failed negotiations and the lack of viable alternatives. “Not every problem has a solution,” he said.

Gi-Wook Shin, who led the interview, observed that the global decline of democracy appears to have hit a turning point, “although it’s too early to say if there will be a rapid recovery…or a more gradual shift.” As for the state of democracy in the United States, he said, “We will have to wait and see what happens in the 2024 presidential election.” Even though Trump’s political influence may be weaker, he observed, “pro-Trump forces are still part of the system.” In terms of Korea’s foreign policy, Shin emphasized that Seoul “should take [the Taiwan] problem much more seriously.” A crisis in the Taiwan Strait “could become the biggest challenge for the Yoon administration’s foreign policy, not North Korea,” and domestic polarization over China policy is one issue that could threaten to “become extremely controversial.”

The interview was held in-person for one hour at Stanford on December 8, 2022, with a follow-up interview held over the phone on December 27.  


[Gi-Wook Shin] Let’s start by looking back on 2022. How would you summarize this year?

[Francis Fukuyama] I think 2022 was a very good year, where we may have bottomed out in this global move away from democracy and toward authoritarian government. The year really started out in February with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which looked very, very threatening. China was on a roll. It looked like they were beating everybody in terms of COVID policy. Then, by the end of the year, the Russians got completely bogged down. China experienced mass protests, and there were protests also in Iran. In America’s elections on November 8, all the pro-Trump forces failed to make gains and, in fact, lost almost everywhere. I think that maybe we will look back on 2022 as the year when this democratic recession that has been going on for over 15 years finally bottomed out.

[GWS] I agree, although it’s too early to say if there will be a rapid recovery toward democracy or a more gradual shift. In the United States, we will have to wait and see what happens in the 2024 presidential election. Former President Trump may be weaker politically, but pro-Trump forces are still part of the system. As for the Ukraine war, many people thought Russia would win quite easily, but now it looks like they are struggling. It’s a big question, of course, but how do you think the war will be remembered in history?

[FF] I think that it is going to be remembered as one of the biggest strategic mistakes made by a great-power leader in a very long time. I think that the mistake is directly due to the nature of the political system. You remember that Vladimir Putin was sitting at the end of this 25-foot table with his defense minister because he was so afraid of COVID. He was extremely isolated during the whole pandemic, and he had already isolated himself in a political system where he doesn’t face checks and balances. That kind of decision-making system makes you prone to make even bigger mistakes, because you don’t have other people to test your ideas against. He was completely uninformed about the degree to which Ukraine had developed a separate national identity and that the Ukrainian people were willing to fight for it. He didn’t have any idea how incompetent his own army was. If he had been in a more democratic country that required him to share power with other people, I don’t think he could have made that kind of mistake.

 

The most important thing is the breakdown of the Chinese economic model. For the past decade, the Chinese model has been to pump a huge amount of money into the real estate sector. That model is collapsing. The other big problem is that they don’t have economic growth anymore.
Francis Fukuyama

[GWS] Putin is struggling, as you said. There are a lot of problems in China, but Xi Jinping secured a third term. Authoritarian leaders elsewhere still hold power. By contrast, I don’t think President Biden has shown powerful leadership at home or globally. I don’t see any strong political leaders in the U.K., France, or Germany either.

[FF] I think that although Xi Jinping may succeed in stabilizing the situation in China with the protests over COVID in the short run, he is in a lot of trouble. He was creating all this social instability with the zero-COVID policy. Now that they’ve started to relax it, I think the number of cases and deaths is going to go up very dramatically, but I don’t think they’ve got much of a choice. I think this has probably damaged the people’s sense of Xi’s authority and legitimacy, and I’m not sure he can recover from that.

The most important thing is the breakdown of the Chinese economic model. For the past decade, the Chinese model has been to pump a huge amount of money into the real estate sector. That model is collapsing. The other big problem is that they don’t have economic growth anymore. Some economists think that they’re actually in a recession, with negative growth. This is like what Japan went through in the 1990s. So much of the Chinese government’s legitimacy has been based on having extremely high growth rates, and that period is over. I don’t see how they get it back, and they certainly won’t by inserting the state into every economic decision and controlling their high-tech sector. Their population is shrinking now. I’m not sure that Xi Jinping, in the longer run, is actually going to look like a very effective leader.

[GWS] But in the short term, say the next three to five years, won’t authoritarian leaders be powerful in comparison? Just as “America First” shows, some say there is a crisis of political leadership among Western democracies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

[FF] I think that apart from President Zelenskyy in Ukraine, we don’t see any really inspiring leaders in Germany or France or the United States. On the other hand, the nice thing about democracy is that it’s an institutional system for managing change. Biden has turned 80, and Trump himself is in his upper 70s. The leadership in Congress and the Democratic Party are all elderly, but they’re all about to change. In the next election cycle, there is going to be a whole new generation of people that are up-and-coming. I don’t think you need a charismatic leader with great vision, necessarily, to run any of the countries you mentioned.

[GWS] Another question is if the United States can provide global leadership. When Trump was defeated, there was a strong expectation for the Biden administration to restore global order and to do much better than its predecessor. I’m not sure whether that’s happening.

[FF] Again, I think that’s why you want to have international institutions rather than being dependent simply on leaders. This gives an institutional basis for continuity in policy. There are all of these alliance structures, like NATO. People thought that NATO was obsolete and was going to go away. It has actually proved to be very durable. The United States has security ties with Korea and Japan that also are quite old, but they’re still durable. It’s interesting that the authoritarian countries have not been able to create anything comparable to that set of alliances. There is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but all the Central Asian states don’t want to be part of this China-Russia dominated organization. We can’t just depend on great leadership.

Korea should proactively participate in upholding and creating an international order that facilitates a resurgence of democracy. Korea has not really played this role before, but with the 10th largest economy in the world, it is now in a position to play a positive role.
Gi-Wook Shin

[GWS] To add on to that, I think Korea should proactively participate in upholding and creating an international order that facilitates a resurgence of democracy. Korea has not really played this role before, but with the 10th largest economy in the world, it is now in a position to play a positive role.

[FF] There is a set of values that underpin America’s alliances, both in Asia and Europe. Throughout the whole Cold War, the Soviet Union never actually invaded a Western democracy, but that’s what Russia did. NATO has suddenly become very relevant once more. I think that both in Korea and Japan, there is also recognition of a comparable challenge from an authoritarian China. Unless all democracies work together and show solidarity with one another, they could be picked off by these two authoritarian powers.

[GWS] There is a lot of debate about whether China is going to invade Taiwan or not. I have a two-part question. First, could the situation in Ukraine reduce the possibility of China invading Taiwan? Second, if China still invades nevertheless, what should Korea do? This is a difficult question for Korea. It cannot say no to the United States as a military ally, but at the same time, it cannot antagonize China. I think this is the most difficult question for Korea at the moment.

[FF] This is a difficult question for the United States because it’s not clear that Congress or the American people actually want to go to war with China in order to save Taiwan. I think if you ask them a polling question stated like that, probably a majority would say, “No, we’re not going to send our troops to die.” But I think it’s likely that the United States will get dragged into such a conflict one way or the other. Among other things, the Chinese would probably have to preempt some of the American forces that are in the theater. American military personnel will get killed as the Chinese attack unfolds, and I think there will be a lot of political pressure to help Taiwan.

[GWS] How much can the United States be involved? Some in Korea are skeptical that Washington will step in.

[FF] This is really the problem. During the Cold War, we had a good idea of what a war would like look like if it actually happened. The military planning was very concretely designed against certain types of escalation. With China, we don’t have a clear set of expectations for what escalation would look like. It could just start with a Chinese invasion. It could start with a blockade. It could start with something in the South China Sea. It could actually start on the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea doing something. If it happens, it’s going to be much more devastating than the war in Ukraine. So much of global production comes out of Asia, and there’s a strong incentive not to let things get out of hand. Whether we have the wisdom to do that is not clear. I also think that people’s expectations and opinions will change once the conflict begins. The moment people see cities being bombed, they will change their minds.

Francis Fukuyama conversing in Gi-Wook Shin's office at Stanford University.
Francis Fukuyama. Kim Namseok/Munhwa Ilbo

[GWS] I also think that a conflict over Taiwan would affect the American people more directly than what is happening in Ukraine. What’s your view on how seriously Korea should be taking this possibility?

[FF] It is likely enough that it is absolutely important for everyone to take it seriously and plan against it. What you want to do is deter China from taking any military action against Taiwan. They’re not going to be deterred unless they see that there’s a response on the other side that is going to raise the cost for them. That’s not going to happen unless people take the scenarios seriously and start thinking about concrete ways that they could help Taiwan or stymie any kind of Chinese attack. I think it is very important for Korea to think this through and think about ways they could support Taiwan and be part of a larger alliance that can push back against China.

[GWS] I keep telling my friends and colleagues in Korea that they should take this problem much more seriously. Taiwan could become the biggest challenge for the Yoon administration’s foreign policy, not North Korea. China policy has become an extremely divisive partisan issue in South Korea, and it could tear the country apart. What advice would you have for President Yoon?

[FF] There’s two things. First is the rhetorical position. Korea should make its position clear in advance that it would oppose Chinese military action and would support the United States, for example. Korea is going to get dragged into this because so much U.S. military equipment is in Korea, and that is going to be moved in closer to the theater. I think making that position clear in advance is important.

The other thing that’s been very clear from the Ukraine war is that democracies are not prepared for an extended conflict. Everybody is running out of ammunition in Europe and the United States is running low on certain types of ammunition. The Ukrainians have used so much of it just in the 10 months they have been fighting. I think that any high-intensity conflict in East Asia is also going to be very costly in terms of supplies. South Korea is in a better position than other countries because it has been preparing for a North Korean attack for decades. Everybody needs to be prepared for an extended conflict. It may not be over in 48 hours.

[GWS] Koreans are quite nervously watching the ongoing escalation of tensions between the United States and China. In the past, the paradigm was “United States for security, China for the economy” (an-mi-gyeong-joong). Now, security and the economy are linked together. The Yoon government is promoting the strengthening of the alliance with the United States, but South Korea faces the fundamental problem of how to position itself as U.S.-China tensions escalate. Do you have any wisdom for Korea?

[FF] I don’t know if it’s wisdom, but I think Korea needs to take a clearer position. Under the previous government, there was a belief that Korea could somehow be halfway between China and the United States. That’s just not a tenable position. The tension between the United States and China has really been driven by China ever since 2013, when Xi Jinping took power. China has become a much more severe dictatorship internally, and it has become much more aggressive externally. You see the influence of the Belt and Road Initiative and the militarization of the South China Sea. In the last 10 or 15 years, China has been picking fights with India, Japan, Korea, and all of Southeast Asia over territorial issues. They built the size of their military much more rapidly than any other great power in that period of time. As a result, the United States and other countries have simply reacted to this. I think that a democracy like Korea cannot pretend that it is somehow in between the United States and China. It has to make the decision that it is going to be on the side of democracy.

[GWS] I agree that an-mi-gyeong-joong is now obsolete, but I think that South Korea must be more sophisticated in its response. As they say, the devil is in the details. On the economy, Seoul can actively work with Washington on areas closely related to security, but it can still partner with Beijing on sectors that are not. There can be a fine-tuned policy.

I now want to ask about North Korea and U.S. policy. I have been saying that the Biden administration policy is one of “strategic neglect,” not the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration. Kim Jong-un keeps testing missiles and provoking, and South Koreans are puzzled by the lack of response from Washington. Why is that? Is it because all the attention is on Ukraine and China?

[FF] Not every problem has a solution, and I don’t think this problem has a solution. You could use diplomacy. You could use military force. You could use deterrence. There are a limited number of possible approaches, and I think none of them are going to work. There has been a long history of negotiation. That has not worked. I think confrontation is not going to work. I think preemption is certainly not going to work. I just don’t think there’s a good solution, so we’ve ended up with trying to ignore the problem by default. Part of the reason North Korea is launching all of these missiles is that they want people to pay attention to them. Ignoring the problem is not much of a solution either, but it’s not as if there is a better solution.

[GWS] I agree with you that for many people in government, North Korea has been a hot potato. You don’t want to touch it because there is no clear solution, and it won’t help your career. But if we just ignore the problem, then five years later it’s going to be worse. What kind of North Korea are we going to face in five or ten years?

[FF] Everybody has been hoping that something would happen internally. It’s fine to think that, but it’s also not taking place. That said, Kim Jong-un is obese and unhealthy. Who knows what might happen?

We've had four elections now where [Trump] was playing a major role in the Republican Party. In three of those elections, he really hurt his own party. He can stir up a third of the electorate that loves him, but it’s never enough to win an election, especially in a swing state.
Francis Fukuyama

[GWS] Let’s now turn to domestic politics here in the United States. I think many Americans were relieved by what happened in the midterm elections last month. Trump’s influence was much more limited than what people thought. But he’s still there, and he’s likely to run again. I think he is still a strong candidate for the Republicans.

[FF] He declared his candidacy, but I think that he is declining very rapidly in influence. We have had four elections now where he was playing a major role in the Republican Party. In three of those elections, he really hurt his own party. He can stir up a third of the electorate that loves him, but it’s never enough to win an election, especially in a swing state. I think he’s gotten crazier in recent months. He is doing so many self-destructive things, having dinner with neo-Nazis and repeating all these conspiracy theories. These are things that no rational candidate would do. The Republicans are going to want somebody that can actually beat the Democrats, and I don’t think it’s going to be him.

[GWS] You don’t expect a rematch between Biden and Trump in 2024?

[FF] This gets into a technical issue, but the Republican primaries are mostly winner-take-all primaries. Any candidate that can get 30% of the vote is likely to be nominated. If you have a Republican field that has several people competing, they may split the alternative vote and Trump may end up winning. I think he still has a good chance of being the Republican nominee. If you’re a Democrat, that’s not the worst thing in the world. It is probably easier to run against Trump than a more normal Republican candidate.

[GWS] Two years is still a long time in politics. You said that Trump is likely to be nominated. Would Biden also run again?

[FF] I think that Biden is going to run again. Part of the problem is in the Democratic Party. It’s not clear who the successor would be. There are a lot of potential new-generation politicians, but I don’t think any of them has enough presence and attention that they can clearly take over the mantle to run as the Democratic candidate. If there is a rematch, I think Biden will win.

[GWS] Now to South Korea. Last June, I did some interviews advocating a parliamentary system, and they received good attention. There is still a lot of hesitancy among Koreans, though. I think there are a few reasons. The first is that we need a strong presidential system to deal with North Korea. There’s no stability if the prime minister keeps changing. Second is that it may drive politicians closer to big business (chaebol) because there’s less direct accountability. What would you suggest for South Korea in terms of institutional reform?

[FF] There are several possibilities even short of a parliamentary system. You can coordinate the presidential and parliamentary terms. It’s still the case that the president has a five-year term, but the legislature is on an even-year term. If you want to have strong government, you need a president that has majority support in the legislature. If they get elected simultaneously on a regular basis, you’re more likely to see strong leadership emerge. In a presidential system, the legislature itself is a check against the president. If you don’t have a strong majority in the legislature, you can’t do anything.

[GWS] That is what is happening right now in Korea.

[FF] In a parliamentary system like the British one, if you have a majority in parliament, you can do what you want. I think the presumption that somehow a presidential system is inevitably stronger than a parliamentary system is not historically correct.

[GWS] Is a parliamentary system maybe one solution to political polarization?

[FF] Sometimes a parliamentary system will have that effect, but the kind of plurality voting system that we have in the United States and in Britain tends to promote polarization. To the extent that you make it possible for third parties to run, that’s probably a better system. If you have more parties and it becomes harder to get a majority in the legislature, that forces coalitions and some degree of power sharing.

Francis Fukuyama 2022

Francis Fukuyama

Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy, and Professor by Courtesy, Department of Political Science
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Gi-Wook Shin

Gi-Wook Shin

Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Professor of Sociology, William J. Perry Professor of Contemporary Korea, Director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, and Director of the Korea Program
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A Conversation with Francis Fukuyama on the Challenges of a Changing Global Order

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Noa Ronkin
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After U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping recently met face-to-face for the first time since Biden took office on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, Biden said he absolutely believed “there need not be a new Cold War” between the two powers. International politics scholar and expert on U.S.-China relations Jia Qingguo, however, is not as certain about this assessment. “If a Cold War between the two countries has not arrived quite yet, it no longer appears far away,” said Jia, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University.

Jia, the Fall 2022 Payne Distinguished Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and a visiting scholar at APARC, headlined this quarter’s Payne Lecture, speaking to a packed audience that gathered on December 6 for a timely discussion titled Avoiding Disaster in U.S.-China Relations, co-hosted by APARC and FSI.

The Payne Lectureship at FSI, named for Frank E. Payne and Arthur W. Payne, aims to raise public understanding of the complex policy issues facing the global community and advance international cooperation. The lectureship brings to Stanford internationally esteemed leaders from academia and the policy world who combine visionary thinking and a broad, practical grasp of their fields with the capacity to provide insights into pressing challenges of global concern. Throughout the 2022-23 academic year, the Payne Lectureship hosts experts from Asia who examine crucial questions in U.S.-China relations.

Professor Jia is uniquely qualified to assess the prospects of U.S.-China relations and offer perspectives from both inside and outside of China, said Jean Oi, director of APARC’s China Program and a senior fellow at FSI. Jia has published widely in both Chinese and English, taught at multiple international institutions, and earned a doctorate from Cornell University. He is engaged both with China’s academic and policymaking circles in his roles as vice president of the China American Studies Association, vice president of the Chinese Association for International Studies, and a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference.

Jia’s address was followed by a panel discussion with Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar, an expert on China and U.S. foreign policy, and FSI Director Michael McFaul, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies at Stanford’s Department of Political Science.


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Under the influence of the Thucydides Trap argument, almost any action by the United States and China is perceived and interpreted as an effort to prepare for an eventual showdown.
Jia Qingguo

Intensifying Rivalry

The use of the Cold War analogy in the context of the U.S.-China competition has gained currency in recent years among politicians and policymakers. Until recently, however, explained Jia, the U.S.-China relationship did not manifest the three prominent features that characterized the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union: ideological competition, military confrontation, and economic separation. This reality is changing. “Now, between the two countries, ideological competition is taking shape, military confrontation is emerging, and although economic relations remain close, efforts to delink the two economies, especially in the hi-tech sectors, are increasing,” Jia said, noting the Biden administration’s ban on semiconductor exports to China, China’s increasing efforts to develop indigenous technologies, and the intensifying military tensions over Taiwan.

Why has the relationship frayed in this way? Jia enumerated several factors of particular relevance. The first is the influence of the Thucydides Trap argument, popularized by Harvard political scientist Graham T. Allison to describe a potential conflict between the United States and China. The idea draws from the Greek historian’s metaphor of the concomitant dangers when a rising power challenges a ruling power, as when Athens challenged Sparta. Under the influence of this line of argument, said Jia, almost any action by the United States and China is perceived and interpreted as an effort to prepare for an eventual showdown.

For example, Americans who subscribe to the Thucydides Trap argument interpret China's growing defense spending as military buildup aimed at challenging American military supremacy, and its Belt and Road Initiative and aid programs as schemes designed to facilitate its grand geopolitical ambitions. Similarly, for Chinese who subscribe to this line of argument, the central objective of U.S. diplomacy is to contain China, Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea are designed to undermine China's territorial sovereignty, and U.S. criticism of China's human rights practices is intended to create political instability in the country. “People who subscribe to the Thucydides Trap argument in both countries cite each other’s views to support their argument and push for more confrontational policies in both countries,” argued Jia. “Such efforts have a significant impact on the bilateral relationship.”

The second factor elevating tensions between the two world powers is their different political value systems, Jia explained. For a long time, China’s Communist system was no hindrance to the development of the U.S. China policy framework of engagement. Perhaps this was the case because China was weaker and many U.S. policymakers believed that political liberalization in the country would follow its integration into the international system, Jia theorized. In recent years, however, Americans have come to recognize that China did not change in the direction they had anticipated. Now, said Jia, former supporters of engagement as the foundation of U.S. China policy feel disappointed and see China as a threat to the U.S.-led liberal international order. Against this backdrop, the Chinese leadership also feels the need to elevate ideology at home. The emphasis on the contrasting ideologies between the two countries “is bad news for the bilateral relationship," Jia stated. “If the relationship is about interests, then we can always negotiate and compromise, but if it’s about values, then it becomes a conflict of good versus evil” which leaves no room for pragmatic solutions.

Jia sees the role of Donald Trump as a third significant factor in leading U.S.-China relations to a collision course. Unlike previous U.S. presidents, he noted, Trump was willing to get tough on China and push the limit of the bilateral relationship regardless of the cost to the United States. Jia enumerated Trump administration policies and actions such as setting tariffs and other trade barriers on China, restricting people-too-people exchanges between the two countries, launching what some perceive as technological warfare against China, blaming China for the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and raising suspicions against Chinese nationals in the United States. With this approach, said Jia, the Trump administration “pushed the relationship between the two countries to the brink of total breakdown.”

To China, the issue of Taiwan is like a way of life, so no leader can compromise on it and stay in power.
Jia Qingguo

But the U.S.-China relationship is no better under President Joe Biden than it was under his predecessor, largely due to domestic politics, Jia said. Legislation aimed at countering China's growing influence is one of the rare topics that gets bipartisan support in the polarized U.S. Congress, he noted. On the Chinese side, many people are frustrated by what they perceive as negatively skewed China coverage in U.S. news media. Chinese officials have become increasingly confident to adopt a more strident, assertive approach, a turn in Chinese foreign policy that has been branded “wolf warrior diplomacy.”

Altogether, these elements have exacerbated negative interactions and heated exchanges between the two countries. To avoid a disastrous conflict, the two countries should focus on shared interests and remember that international stability is one such common interest, Jia believes. “We are all stakeholders of the existing international system,” he said, “so we need to take a more balanced view of the nature of our relationship.” Areas of potential cooperation, such as climate change or non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, offer a glimpse of hope for improved bilateral engagement.

Additionally, he noted, the two countries should build consultation mechanisms to manage conflicts of interest in areas such as trade disputes, the right to conduct military and reconnaissance activities along the coasts of other countries, human rights issues, and more.

Yet Jia admitted that the United States and China should build guardrails for the relationship to avoid military accidents and confrontations. Here, however, a potential conflict over Taiwan is a thorn in the side of both countries. “To China, the issue of Taiwan is like a way of life,” Jia noted, “so no leader can compromise on it and stay in power.” Guardrails in U.S.-China relations should therefore go beyond agreement on protocols to encompass U.S. assurance on Taiwan, he said.

By 2016, every constituency that had been thought of as a pillar of maintaining stability in the U.S.-China relationship had been alienated.
Thomas Fingar

Alienated Constituencies

In his comments, Thomas Fingar pointed out that Jia’s main argument ultimately means that blame for the difficulties in the U.S.-China relationship rests more or less entirely with the United States and that “everything that China does, and has done recently, is in response to American actions.” In reality, however, the relationship is affected by a complicated mix in which both countries respond to each other’s actions and changes in the global environment, he said.

Fingar also challenged the importance Jia assigned to the role of the Trump administration in deteriorating the bilateral relationship. “By the time the Trump administration took office,” Fingar said, “virtually every constituency that had been built over previous decades had been alienated by Chinese actions.” These actions, he stated, include, among others, imposing intellectual property pressures to transfer technology; refusing to open segments of the Chinese economy as had been committed in advance of its WTO membership; restrictions on American journalists and access to American news media; and passing the Overseas Non-Governmental Organization law, which aims primarily at reducing the influence of foreign actors on Chinese domestic affairs by requiring foreign organizations to register with the Ministry of Public Security and have an official Chinese sponsor.

As a result, by 2016, said Fingar, “every constituency that had been thought of as a pillar of maintaining stability in the relationship had been alienated.” Thus, although one can debate Trump's approach to China, the approach was not simply a matter of his personality and the underlying issues it set out to address were real. According to Fingar, this dynamic also explains why the Biden administration has kept a tough stance on China.

On one point Fingar agreed with Jia: the strains in the U.S.-China relationship are here to stay in the near term. There is currently not much pressure in the United States to improve the relationship, Fingar said, and it is probably easier for the United States to get along with the strained relationship than for China. “For domestic economic and stability reasons, China needs improvement in the relationship more than the United States does,” he concluded. “China should, therefore, have more incentive than Washington to try and improve the relationship.”

We can never allow a disagreement based on bad information and misperceptions. And I worry that there's too much of that going on in U.S.-China relations.
Michael McFaul

Misperceptions and Non-Events

Michael McFaul reminded the audience of the limits to framing the U.S.-China relationship through a Cold War lens. The most fundamental difference between the present situation and the Cold War era, he noted, is the U.S.-China economic interdependence and China's integration into the global economy. Most Americans now see China’s stake in the global economy as a threat, McFaul said, but the situation may also hold opportunities for relationship management that we did not have with the Soviet Union. Certainly, there are opportunities to learn from significant mistakes both the United States and the Soviets made during the Cold War era.

The three biggest mistakes of the United States during that period, according to McFaul, were overestimating the Soviet ideological threat globally, and therefore overreacting to it; at times, overestimating Soviet military power; and partnering with autocratic entities that, in retrospect, "we did not need to do to win the Cold War." These offer important lessons for the United States, said McFaul, as we think about competing with China in ways that protect U.S. interests, values, and well-being. “We don't have to do another round of McCarthyism. We don't have to fight another Vietnam war to be successful in managing the competition with China today.”

The Soviets, too, made several big mistakes, McFaul explained. First, they feared Communist reformers so much that they launched three invasions: of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981. Moreover, in the late Cold War period, the Soviets gave up on reform at home to focus on investing resources in projecting power abroad. “I see this mistake happening right now,” McFaul said, “when I look at China’s 20th Party Congress.” Finally, Brezhnev’s overreach in Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Overreach, McFaul noted, is an important lesson for China’s current leaders.

McFaul closed his remarks with reflections on perceptions and misperceptions. The Thucydides Trap in U.S.-China relations is real, he said, and so is the ideological competition between the two powers. To argue otherwise would be naïveté and misperception. The challenge for academics and policymakers is twofold, he stated. First, there is the daunting question of what can be done to stabilize the relationship and what evidence or signaling either side could use to determine whether the other’s actions pose a real threat or are merely being misperceived as an ideological threat. “We can never allow a disagreement based on bad information and misperceptions. And I worry that there's too much of that going on in U.S.-China relations,” he said.

Another compounding question is whether China is indeed a status quo power that has a shared interest in the international order. Either side should be worried about the revisionist actions the other is initiating in the international system, McFaul noted. “There is, however, one issue on which both sides must be status quo powers, namely, Taiwan — and I think this is the challenge to avoiding disaster.” The greatest achievement of American and Chinese diplomacy today, in McFaul’s view, is the absence of war over Taiwan. “We should think more about the conditions that lead to non-events,” he said. “You cannot be a status quo power and invade Taiwan. That's a contradiction. I want to believe that we both have an interest in avoiding war in Taiwan. I want to know how we can make, on both sides, a more credible commitment to that non-event,” he concluded.

It remains to be seen whether a sufficient sense of urgency and high stakes can avert the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations. Jia’s somber assessment is that tensions will continue to define the bilateral relationship in the coming years. A potential conflict over Taiwan in particular remains a stumbling block, and if the current trend continues, he said, then “there is a chance that the two countries may have to downgrade diplomatic relations.”


The Payne Lectureship will return in 2023, continuing with the theme of Asian perspectives on the U.S.-China relationship. In the winter quarter, we will host Shin Jung-Seung, former ambassador for the Republic of Korea to China and currently chair professor and managing director of the East Asia Institute at Dongseo University. And in the spring, we will be joined by Kokubun Ryosei, professor emeritus at Keio University and adjunct adviser at the Fujitsu Future Studies Center. We invite you to join us at the next installments of the Payne Lecture series featuring these two distinguished Payne fellows.

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Fall 2022 Payne Distinguished Fellow Jia Qingguo, a professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University, examines the drivers behind the frayed U.S.-China relationship and conditions for avoiding a disastrous conflict between the two world powers. Cold War-style confrontation will continue to define the bilateral relationship in the coming years, he predicts.

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Shorenstein APARC's annual report for the academic year 2020-21 is now available.

Learn about the research, publications, and events produced by the Center and its programs over the last academic year. Read the feature sections, which look at APARC's research on democratic decline in South Korea, the continuing crisis in Myanmar, and U.S.-China tensions; learn about the research our postdoctoral fellows engaged in; and catch up on the Center's policy work, education initiatives, and policy outreach. Download your copy or browse below:

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In October 2022, the Chinese Communist Party elected Xi Jinping for a third term as general secretary, setting Xi on a path to be the longest-serving leader since Mao Zedong’s rule ended in 1976.

The extension of Xi’s rule carries significant implications not only for China, but for the broader Indo-Pacific region and global geopolitical order. No country is more aware of this than Taiwan, which has carefully walked the line between its own autonomy and Beijing’s desire for reunification since the 1940s.

After a summer of rising tensions, many experts believe that Beijing’s timeline for an attempt at reunification is much shorter than conventional thinking has assumed. On the World Class podcast, Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, discusses the prognosis for Taiwan with Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on the Chinese military and security, and Larry Diamond, a scholar of China’s sharp power and the role of Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific region.

Listen to the full episode and read highlights from their conversation below.

Click the link for a full transcript of “What We Need To Talk About When We Talk About Taiwan.“

The Likelihood of Invasion


In stark terms, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, believes there’s a 100% chance China will use some sort of force against Taiwan in the next five years. For the last twenty years, China has been making concerted efforts to modernize its military and increase its capabilities not only to assert force against Taiwan, but to deter intervention from the United States.

In the majority of scenarios, the United States wins in a conflict with China over Taiwan. But the United States also carries a distinct geographic disadvantage. The distance across the Taiwan Strait between the island and mainland China is approximately 100 miles, which is roughly the distance between Richmond, Virginia and Washington D.C. If China moves quickly, PRC forces could take Taiwan before U.S. forces have time to move into position.

When considering possible outcomes in Taiwan, it is equally important to consider the motivations driving Beijing’s ambitions. The leadership on the mainland has been planning and thinking about how to retake Taiwan since 1949. With the modernized capabilities coming online, the balance of power has shifted in China’s military favor, and the cost-benefit calculus favors Beijing’s ambitions. The long-term planning stage is now reaching its end, and the prospects of direct action are increasing.

The clock is ticking. The problem is we don’t know how fast it’s ticking. But we need to move faster than we're moving.
Larry Diamond
Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at FSI

The View from Taipei


Political leaders in Taiwan recognize the growing danger they face across the Strait. In Larry Diamond’s assessment, the end of Hong Kong's autonomy and the suppression of the “one country, two systems” model, the rising military incursions into Taiwan's air defense identification zone and coastal waters, and the whole rising pace of Chinese military intimidation has sobered Taiwan and visibly impacted Taiwanese public opinion.

Concerningly though, while the political elite recognize the real and present danger of the situation, polling of the general Taiwan public suggests that the vast majority of citizens still feel like an attack or an invasion by China is unlikely. Similar majorities suggest that they would be willing to fight in Taiwan’s defense, but volunteering for military service remains at a minimum.

To maximize safety, Taiwan needs to find ways to strengthen itself in its ability to defend, resist, and deter China, while still avoiding any appearance of moving toward permanent independence or any other action that could be deemed by Beijing as a provocation, says Diamond.

There are things that can completely change Beijing's calculus, but it takes a lot of work, and I just don't see us doing the work yet.
Oriana Skylar Mastro
FSI Center Fellow

What the United States Can Do


When it comes to the defense of Taiwan, the strategic crutch hobbling the United States is geography. Most of the U.S. Pacific forces are not in Asia. The majority are in Hawaii and California, as well as a few bases and airfields in Japan. To be able to effectively deter China, the U.S. needs far greater forward deployed military capability in order to be able to either stop or stall the movement of Chinese troops into Taiwan, says Mastro.

Taiwan needs greater onshore military deterrence capabilities as well. One such strategy is the “porcupine approach,” which increases the number of smaller mobile lethal weapons. By Larry Diamond’s assessment, increased citizen participation in military training is also crucial, with an emphasis on weapons training and urban defense tactics. The U.S. could support these aims by overhauling the current system for weapons procurement to speed up the production and delivery of weapons systems not just for Taiwan, but to the benefit of U.S. defense and other contingencies as well. Working with leadership to create strategic stockpiles of food, and energy should also be a priority, says Diamond.

The U.S. also needs to put much more effort into its diplomatic efforts on behalf of Taiwan. Many U.S. allies and partners are reluctant to ostracize China because of economic ties and concerns over sparking their own conflict with China in the future. A key ally in all of this is Japan. If Japan fights with the United States on behalf of Taiwan, it is a guaranteed win and enough to effectively deter China. But much more needs to be done much more quickly in order to secure those guarantees and present them in a convincing way to Beijing.

“The clock is ticking,” Larry Diamond says. “And the problem is we don’t know how fast it’s ticking. “Taiwan is moving in the right direction. But we need to move faster than we're moving.”

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China’s Huge Exercises Around Taiwan Were a Rehearsal, Not a Signal, Says Oriana Skylar Mastro

Nancy Pelosi’s visit was more pretext than provocation.
China’s Huge Exercises Around Taiwan Were a Rehearsal, Not a Signal, Says Oriana Skylar Mastro
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Larry Diamond and Oriana Skylar Mastro join Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast to discuss China’s ambitions against Taiwan, and how the U.S. and its allies can deter Beijing.

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This commentary was first published in The Diplomat.


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s Five-Point Consensus plan to resolve the crisis in Myanmar has failed, mostly because it ran up against the reality of a power-hungry, uncompromising military leadership in Naypyidaw. That does not mean, however, that ASEAN has nothing to contribute to efforts to help Myanmar find a way out of its current situation. In fact, ASEAN can make an important contribution by sending a clear message to the junta that it will not accept its planned 2023 sham election.

Myanmar’s generals, facing overwhelming public hostility and an unexpectedly strong resistance movement, are trying to sell to the world the idea that next year’s election represents the best hope for ending the crisis that has overwhelmed the country for the past 19 months. The generals are counting on governments in the neighborhood to accept the elections, conferring legitimacy on whatever military-dominated government emerges, dealing a blow to the resistance’s morale, and giving the military an edge in the country’s power struggle.

There are three reasons why ASEAN member states should upset the generals’ plans by saying firmly that they will not accept the elections. First and most importantly, the proposed elections do not actually offer an exit from the crisis. Much of the country has been united against the junta from the moment of the coup in February 2021, and the military’s shocking violence, appalling behavior, and stunning mismanagement since then have only deepened popular opposition and active resistance to its rule.

The Myanmar public has made it clear that it wants the military out of power and will not accept new junta-managed elections. Given this, one can safely predict that a large majority of voters would boycott the polls or would cast their ballots only under duress, with a high likelihood of significant violence on election day. Put simply, junta-managed elections would do nothing to address the root cause of the crisis and would likely increase conflict and instability.


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By taking a firm stance against sham elections, ASEAN might gain leverage vis-à-vis the junta and restore its central role in efforts to help Myanmar find a genuine exit from the current crisis.
Amb. Scot Marciel

Second, and related to the first point, any elections run by the military will be so far from credible as to constitute a tragic joke. The junta has filled the election commission with loyal hacks, imprisoned most of the country’s prominent politicians, sought to crush independent media, and created an atmosphere of intense fear. Anyone who knows Myanmar – and who remembers the military’s shameless holding of a constitutional referendum while the country was reeling from Cyclone Nargis in 2008 – understands there is zero chance that junta-run elections would be anything other than a complete farce. China and Russia won’t care and will accept the elections nonetheless, but ASEAN claims to have higher standards. Were it to accept the elections as “a step forward,” ASEAN’s standing and credibility in the region and the world would suffer a major blow.

Third, by taking a firm stance against sham elections, ASEAN might gain leverage vis-à-vis the junta and restore its central role in efforts to help Myanmar find a genuine exit from the current crisis. Such a stance might not stop the generals from holding the elections, but it would send a strong signal to the rest of the world not to cynically accept them. If they see that their election exit strategy has little hope of succeeding, some senior military officers – feeling growing pressure from the resistance – might look for another exit strategy. ASEAN, in close consultation with the NUG and others in Myanmar, can then think about suggesting other paths out of the crisis that involve the military making substantive political concessions.

Some might argue that it is unrealistic to expect the other nine member governments of ASEAN to achieve consensus on such an approach, given that several are authoritarian themselves and the institution has a practice of non-interference in members’ internal affairs. They might be right, but all ASEAN members have an interest in Myanmar returning to stability, if not democracy, and might be open to this approach if they believe it has a better chance of moving the country in the right direction than does supporting bad elections.

Also, one could argue within ASEAN that accepting sham elections in a country where the vast majority of the population doesn’t want them would itself constitute interference in Myanmar’s domestic affairs. Moreover, taking a stance on the junta’s election plans would not set a dangerous precedent, if some members worry about that. The junta’s appalling violence against its own people and lack of domestic support and legitimacy put it in a category all by itself.

ASEAN faces a choice: continue to pursue its failed Five-Point Consensus approach that has made it largely irrelevant and cost it credibility, or take an eminently reasonable stance that at least has a chance of restoring its central role and of helping Myanmar find an exit path from its present downward spiral.

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The Southeast Asian bloc must make it clear that it will not accept the military junta’s sham election.

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Visiting Scholar at APARC, 2022-23
Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia, 2022-23
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Professor Jacques Bertrand joins the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) as Visiting Scholar and Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Fellow on Contemporary Southeast Asia for the 2022-2023 fall quarter. He currently serves as Professor at the University of Toronto's Department of Political Science. While at APARC, he will be conducting research with Professor Donald Emmerson examining war-to-peace transitions in civil war, particularly in Southeast Asia.

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A week after Myanmar’s military junta executed four democracy activists, foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) concluded a meeting in Phnom Penh without an agreement about how to push member Myanmar into enacting a crisis resolution plan. Meanwhile, the political, humanitarian, and economic crisis in the country triggered by the coup continues with no end in sight, and the people of Myanmar feel abandoned by the international community.

Scot Marciel, the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at APARC, recently examined the criticisms that can be leveled at the world’s response to the ongoing crisis. On July 25, 2022, Marciel testified at a special oral hearing of the International Parliamentary Inquiry for Myanmar (IPI), which brings together members of parliaments from Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas to assess the response of international actors to the crisis in Myanmar and offer recommendations to address the urgent needs in the country. Watch the testimony below:

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Chaired by Vice-President of the European Parliament Heidi Hautala, IPI is an initiative of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a regional network of current and former parliamentarians who use their positions to advance human rights and democracy in Southeast Asia. At the special IPI hearing, Marciel, a career diplomat with extensive experience in Southeast Asia and a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, highlighted two fundamental problems with the international community’s response to the crisis in Myanmar.

First, said Marciel, several countries, including influential Southeast Asian nations, have chosen to support the military junta to advance their narrow interests. The second problem, he added, is that even those countries and international organizations that have condemned the junta have, to varying degrees, relied on flawed analysis and conventional diplomatic tools and approaches that do not fit the reality of the situation in Myanmar.

Despite adopting a “five-point consensus” on the crisis in April 2021, ASEAN has failed to fulfill its pledges or take meaningful steps toward pressing the junta to end its atrocities. Unfortunately, explains Marciel, “the ASEAN initiative was stillborn, for two reasons. First, the junta almost immediately reneged on its commitment to implement it, saying it only would consider the five points once it had ‘stabilized’ the situation. And second, the five-point consensus itself did not match the reality of Myanmar.”

Myanmar is not facing a conflict between two legitimate political actors, but rather a national resistance or revolution against an institution that has brutalized the country for decades for its own benefit and that is now waging war against its own population.
Scot Marciel

The trouble, according to Marciel, is that the ASEAN governments as well as other foreign governments have relied on the conventional diplomatic tools of calling for an end to violence and promoting peaceful dialogue, rather than developing an approach that fits the situation on the ground.

The international community needs to rethink its approach, emphasizes Marciel, starting with the understanding that the complex civil conflict in Myanmar is not only a resistance front against the military but also a movement demanding dramatic social and political change. “Myanmar is not facing a conflict between two legitimate political actors,” says Marciel, “but rather a national resistance or revolution against an institution that has brutalized the country for decades for its own benefit and that is now waging war against its own population.”

What could and should the UN and sympathetic governments collectively do to address the crisis? Marciel offers a list of policy recommendations, including stepping up engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG) and key Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs), which play a major role in determining the course of Myanmar’s political future, offering training to support nascent local administration efforts in areas controlled by the resistance movement, reconsidering sanctions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, and more.

Marciel also recently spoke about the Myanmar crisis and the path forward at two public forums, one hosted by the Asia Society and another by the East-West Center in Washington. Watch the recordings of these discussions below:

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ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus ‘Not Appropriate’ for Myanmar: Ex-US Ambassador

The Irrawaddy spoke to Scot Marciel, former United States ambassador to Myanmar and currently a visiting scholar at APARC, about the current state of regional and international efforts to tackle the Myanmar crisis.
ASEAN’s Five-Point Consensus ‘Not Appropriate’ for Myanmar: Ex-US Ambassador
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Even those countries and international organizations that have not supported the military junta in Myanmar have relied on flawed analysis and conventional diplomatic tools and approaches that do not fit the reality of the crisis in the country, argues Marciel, the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at APARC.

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More than a year after Myanmar’s military junta seized power in a coup, the military’s concerted offensive operations have failed to crush anti-regime resistance forces and consolidate power in rural areas. The violent deadlock between the military government and multiple opposition groups shows no signs of easing, and the people of Myanmar remain trapped in an escalating political, economic, and humanitarian crisis.

According to the latest report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country has exceeded one million, basic services have collapsed, and more than 14 million people have humanitarian needs.

APARC’s Southeast Asia Program and Asia Health Policy Program bring attention to the political context of the civil conflict in Myanmar and the implications of the multidimensional crisis in the country. This past spring quarter, the Southeast Asia Program dedicated one of its webinars to examining the opportunities and challenges faced by the opponents of Myanmar’s military regime. The virtual discussion featured two experts: Nyantha Maw Lin, an analyst with extensive experience in government affairs, public policy, and political risk assessment related to Myanmar, and Scot Marciel, a career diplomat and former U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar who now serves as a visiting practitioner fellow on Southeast Asia at APARC.

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A Shifting Civil Conflict

Nyantha described the evolution of the anti-coup movement in Myanmar from its beginnings with protests and civil disobedience campaigns by government workers and civil servants to its current state of armed resistance movement aimed at bringing down the military regime. Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) have played a pivotal role in this shift. These non-state actors have fought the Myanmar military for decades in the borderlands and hold parts of the country under de facto control, sheltering and training tens of thousands of young people.

These resistance groups now present a powerful front of grassroots-level insurgency that is hampering operations by the coup regime. In this collection of self-organized groups, some are working with the National Unity Government (NUG) shadow administration, others with more decentralized networks, but all share the conviction that armed struggle is the only option for dealing with the military regime.

The power dynamic between the military and anti-regime resistance forces is now existential for both sides. “We are looking at what will most likely be a protracted civil conflict in Myanmar,” says Nyantha.

What are the paths toward a better future for Myanmar? One possibility is a shift in the military’s calculus, though it would necessitate a leadership change. Another possibility, according to Nyantha, is that the array of opposition actors can come together and use multilateral platforms to facilitate unprecedented forms of cooperation beyond resistance against the military to establish areas of territorial control and self-governance. “If they can emerge from this process with a new political vision and a roadmap for a more tolerant and inclusive Myanmar, then there is a chance the balance may tip against the military.”

These platforms include the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which includes representatives from multiple opposition groups. Depending on how dialogues within the NUCC continue, it could generate a new political dynamic in the country and lay the groundwork for a future federal democratic union, notes Nyantha.

 

As long as the military is in power, Myanmar is not going to enjoy peace or stability.
Ambassador Scot Marciel

Historical Grievances, Future Visions

But there remains a lot of work to do to build trust among Myanmar’s traditionally fractious ethnic groups, Ambassador Marciel stresses. This mistrust has historical roots in decades of political disunity among Myanmar’s ethnic minorities amidst struggles for autonomy and self-determination, and in their longstanding grievances toward the state that has privileged the majority Burmans (also known as Bamar). Thus, possibly the biggest weakness of the resistance movement is the lack of a unified vision for establishing civilian rule. “I do think that it is hugely important to bring about more unity to the movement that is resisting the military regime,” says Marciel.

The international community should better understand the complexity of the civil conflict in Myanmar and recognize that the spontaneous revolt underway is not only a resistance front against the military but also a movement demanding dramatic social and political change, Marciel emphasizes.

He, therefore, cautions that the traditional tools of conventional diplomatic thinking – ceasefire, peaceful negotiations, and dialogue — do not currently apply to Myanmar. “At this point, there is no realistic scenario of dialogue leading to some compromise deal. As long as the military is in power, Myanmar is not going to enjoy peace or stability.” The people of Myanmar have suffered for far too long at the hands of the military, and the resistance forces are not interested in a compromise deal that would allow the military to maintain substantial political power, Marciel says. At the same time, the military is also not interested in negotiating.

According to Marciel, the international community should focus on supporting the resistance movement efforts. He also expressed this point in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy. “[T]he best possible scenario is for the military to face so much pressure that they then begin to look for a way out […] I think that maximum pressure on the military, both internally and externally, whether it’s by sanctions or other means, is the best chance of achieving progress, though it won’t be easy.”

To fight a pandemic, collective action is needed. Instead, Myanmar has faced a collective trauma.
Dr. Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw

A Deadly Syndemic

Even before the coup, Myanmar had one of the world’s weakest health systems and one of the least prepared for addressing epidemics and pandemics, according to the 2019 Global Heath Security Index. The devastating effects of the coup have coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, combining into a perfect storm that has brought the country’s already-fragile health system to collapse.

The coup and the post-coup conflicts interact with the pandemic and Myanmar’s fragmented health system in ways that resemble a syndemic, says Phyu Phyu Thin Zaw, a medical doctor, epidemiologist, and health systems researcher now based at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. The term syndemic refers to the synergistic nature of health and social problems affecting vulnerable communities and contributing to an excess disease burden. It helps explain the dire crises gripping Myanmar’s health system, explains Dr. Thin Zaw.

Thin Zaw, a former visiting scholar at APARC, spoke at a webinar hosted by the Asia Health Policy Program about the impacts of the devastation caused by the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic on Myanmar’s health system and the current opportunities and challenges for response and recovery. She was joined by Nay-Lin Tun, a medical doctor who manages programs that help vulnerable communities in remote and conflict-affected areas of Myanmar to get access to health services.

Since the coup, hundreds of medical personnel and health care workers have been dismissed and subject to violent attacks. Many have escaped to areas under the control of anti-junta forces, leading to a severe “brain drain” or rather “brain hemorrhage” in the health system, Thin Zaw notes. When the third wave of the coronavirus struck Myanmar in July 2021, it hit like a tsunami. Immunization plans were severely interrupted, no quarantine or contact tracing measures were taken, and with shortages of health workers, medicine, and equipment, the health system was soon overwhelmed, with thousands of infections and rising deaths.

“To fight a pandemic, collective action is needed. Instead, Myanmar has faced a collective trauma,” says Thin Zaw. “The coup destroyed the reciprocal trust both horizontally among people and vertically between people and the government.”

Challenges for Humanitarian Response

Myanmar needs humanitarian assistance in every area, but grueling challenges hamper humanitarian relief delivery. International aid groups grapple with shuttered access, high-cost and high-risk operations, and ethical and political dilemmas: Should they stay or exit? Through which channels should they deliver aid? How can they advocate and work with the military junta? How should their money be spent under the military regime?

Dr. Tun, providing a grassroots medical humanitarian perspective on what is happening in Myanmar, described the multiple problems facing providers and patients on the ground. These include a severe shortage of health workers on the frontline, difficulties getting patients to hospitals, lack of essential medical supplies and equipment, COVID-19 infections, and overall increased mortality and morbidity among IDPs. He presented the results of a mixed-methods survey of health care workers conducted in non-military-controlled areas and conveyed their urgent requests for help. 

A Way Forward

With Myanmar’s health system in collapse, this is a time to focus on strengthening primary health care and leveraging the silver lining of the post-coup softening of ethnic tensions to build a federal health education system for inclusiveness, said Thin Zaw. She pointed to the collaboration between the NUG and EAOs-controlled healthcare groups as an encouraging step towards creating a federal health system.

She urged international actors to be realistic about the limits of their influence over the military junta and to create flexible and politically sensitive aid programs with contingency plans. Yet international organizations must continue all efforts to support the delivery of critical services to the people of Myanmar, especially in areas such as food security, emergency health, and COVID-19 response, she said. “Please don’t forget the people of my country,” she pleaded.

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As the devastating effects of the coup in Myanmar and post-coup conflicts have resulted in escalating humanitarian emergencies, APARC’s Southeast Asia Program and Asia Health Policy Program examine the shifting contours of war and the prospects for a better future for Myanmar’s people.

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The Irrawaddy
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This interview with Scot Marciel was originally published by The Irrawaddy. Marciel, who served as U.S. ambassador to Myanmar from March 2016 through May 2020, is a visiting practitioner fellow on Southeast Asia at APARC. His forthcoming book, Imperfect Partners: The United States and Southeast Asia, which interprets the region and its relations with the United States historically and at present, will be published by APARC later this year.


Since it seized power in February 2021, Myanmar’s military regime has ignored international calls to end its use of violence, release political prisoners and negotiate with its opponents. Some Western nations have applied sanctions, while powerful neighbors India and China have largely sought to protect their own interests. Regional bloc ASEAN has been split, with some members seeking to engage the junta and others calling for contact with the shadow National Unity Government. The Irrawaddy spoke to Scot Marciel, former United States ambassador to Myanmar (2016-20) and currently a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Walter Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, about the current state of regional and international efforts to tackle the Myanmar crisis.

The Irrawaddy: There have been many tragic stories in Myanmar since the coup. It is not enough to just pressure the regime to change its behavior or to make concessions. Can you talk about how the international community and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should assist the Myanmar people?

Marciel: I would offer two thoughts. First, I don’t think you can expect ASEAN to solve this problem, certainly not by itself. The ASEAN Five-Point Consensus, while it’s done with very good intentions, not only are the points not being implemented, they are actually not appropriate for the situation in Myanmar in my view. So it is a mistake to dwell on the Five-Point Consensus. I don’t really blame ASEAN too much for that because the junta is refusing to be reasonable at all and make any kind of concessions. Second, as Malaysia’s foreign minister has suggested publicly, more engagement with the National Unity Government (NUG) and other figures opposed to the junta is really important. I am pleased to see that [US] Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with Zin Mar Aung [the NUG foreign minister, on Aug. 12] in Washington. I think there needs to be more engagement with the NUG and other actors, recognizing that trying to convince the generals to hold talks with those who oppose them is not really a very useful way of going about things.

The Irrawaddy: Do you think the NUG is the best option, aside from Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and other stakeholders, in terms of whom the US and ASEAN should be engaging with?

Marciel: I know some people have not been fully satisfied with the NUG. I understand that, but it’s certainly one important factor that has a lot more legitimacy than the junta for sure. I think it is useful to engage with the NUG, but also with actors who are seeking to return the country to a democratic and peaceful path.

The Irrawaddy: When we talk about ASEAN there are some criticisms because so far the Five-Point Consensus as you said is going nowhere, but people keep talking about it. We, ourselves, have become the hostages of the consensus. Beyond ASEAN, there has also been some criticism that the US and other Western countries are outsourcing the Myanmar crisis to ASEAN. We know that ASEAN is toothless and powerless, and so far has achieved little on Myanmar. Why has the West outsourced the problem to ASEAN?

Marciel: To be fair, at least for the United States, I don’t think the United States is necessarily expecting ASEAN by itself to solve the problem. The truth is I don’t know any outside player that can solve the problem. ASEAN can help. This goes back to, among other things, the Five-Point Consensus. It’s not just that the points aren’t being implemented, they really aren’t appropriate for the situation. A ceasefire… OK If the military stops all violence and allows peaceful protests, that would be useful. But does anyone really think that is going to happen? Second, dialogue, my sense is, again I can’t speak for the Myanmar people, but it seems people aren’t interested in negotiating and compromising with the military junta. They want them out of power. And I think the international community should be supporting those efforts, rather than proposing and calling for some kind of dialogue that is completely unrealistic, at least at this time.

Maximum pressure, both internally and externally, on Myanmar’s military, whether it’s by sanctions or other means, is the best chance of achieving progress, though it won’t be easy.
Amb. Scot Marciel

The Irrawaddy: In the past, the US has played a major role in promoting democracy, freedom and federal union in Myanmar. You know in 2008-09, we had Kurt Campbell, one of the key architects of the pivot to Asia and of course specific Myanmar policies of principled engagement, and the carrot-and-stick approach, where sanctions were imposed but also with the incentive that if reforms took place, the sanctions would be eased. There was very consistent and intense communication with the-then regime and the opposition in Myanmar. Do you think that, in coordination with ASEAN, the US can work on Myanmar issues with the same vigor and energy as it did in the late 2000s?

Marciel: It’s a good question. It’s very clear that the US and the Biden administration remain very supportive of efforts to help the country go back to democracy and peace and federal union. But my sense is that it’s hard to figure out what they can actually do to make that happen. There’s not a lot of easy choices, whether it’s the United States or ASEAN, because the generals do not seem interested in doing anything positive, they are just holding onto power. We’ve seen what they are willing to do to their own people for the sake of holding power. And it narrows the space for diplomacy, certainly. I would have a very hard time if I were still in the government saying we should engage with the junta and try to create incentives for them because I think there is no chance, absent them feeling much more pressure, that they are willing to seriously consider changing their approach.

The Irrawaddy: Do you think there should be more sanctions, more pressure, including maybe an arms embargo? What about ASEAN and other countries like China, Thailand, and India?

Marciel: There is no great option right now. I don’t believe there is, at this point at least, any opportunity for dialogue that will return the country to a democratic path or democratic federalism. I don’t think the military can restore stability and govern the country effectively. So the best possible scenario is for the military to face so much pressure, that they then begin to look for a way out. So yes, I think maximum pressure, both internally and externally, on the military whether it’s by sanctions or other means is the best chance of achieving progress, though it won’t be easy.

The Irrawaddy: We have a powerful neighbor, China, which shares a long border with Myanmar. We also have our neighbor Thailand, which is absorbing refugees, migrant workers, and asylum seekers. Because of the crisis, they are also sharing the burden. Obviously, China is always supportive of those in power, whether it is the regime or a democratic government. If China and Thailand don’t make any moves, don’t apply any external pressure, it is hard to see any policy of maximizing pressure on the regime working. Do you agree?

Marciel: I agree that there are limits in terms of external pressure. That’s why there is no easy answer. It seems that China is willing to support the junta even though nearly the entire population of Myanmar opposes that. I don’t think that is likely to change. On Thailand, I hope that the Thai authorities will see that the longer the military is in power, the more problems there are going to be across the border, including refugees and instability. And the Thais, I think, will have an interest in pressing in their own way, pressing the military to look for a way out, because otherwise this crisis is going to continue and Thailand’s going to suffer from some of these cross-border challenges, including very serious humanitarian issues.

The Irrawaddy: We have heard that the regime is not happy with the idea of—the wording is quite sensitive—a humanitarian corridor. But Thailand will have to play a key role if cross-border assistance and humanitarian assistance are to reach a large number of Myanmar people. What are your thoughts on that, as the US has made at least four high-ranking official visits to Thailand since the coup? Should the Biden administration engage and cooperate with the Thai government to provide assistance?

Marciel: There is a lot of discussion between the US and Thai officials on this. I don’t know the substance of those discussions. I am not sure what exactly has been said. But to me the United States and Thailand, even if we may have somewhat different views on the coup and the junta, we should try to find a way to work together at a minimum to address the serious humanitarian need right along the Thai border and just across the border. You know it is not easy for Thailand as a neighbor of Myanmar having to deal with the junta. But I think there are ways that this could be done carefully and I assume that these discussions are happening between the United States and Thailand. I hope that they lead to greater and more successful efforts to get humanitarian assistance to the border and across the border on behalf of Myanmar people.

The Irrawaddy: Not only Thailand but, since 1988, the US has also been one of the more generous countries in taking Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers from the Thailand-Myanmar border. This time, again, we see the educated people, the middle class, technicians, professionals, artists, media, and IT people leaving Myanmar. It is a brain drain for Myanmar, but a brain gain for the countries they go to. Do you agree that those people are hugely beneficial to those societies?

Marciel: Yes, I agree. I think, the US processing of…I hate to sound bureaucratic, but you know working to welcome refugees is not a fast process, because there are so many refugees around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States and other places. The US does, as you said, have a long record of accepting and welcoming refugees from Burma/Myanmar. I expect that will continue. I mean, it serves one aspect. A lot of people want to go back to the country and contribute, but right now the conditions aren’t right. For those who definitely want to leave, I think the United States will continue to welcome them. But there is a process because there are so many refugees around the world now.

The Irrawaddy: In Myanmar, as in any country, the people need a professional military, but not the one we have right now. That’s why people have taken up arms against it and the regime. You wrote an article about the Myanmar military last year. Can you talk about reform in the military and security sector?

Marciel: It is too bad that the situation has reached the point that people feel like they have no choice but to take up arms. I don’t judge them for that. It is unfortunate. But the military took away the peaceful option for people to protest or express their views against the junta. It is understandable why a number of people have taken up arms. I wrote the article because I was hearing from some people in the region and around the world saying well, the Myanmar military is an essential institution and one of the country’s few unifying institutions. I disagree. In theory, it should be a unifying institution, but it hasn’t been one. It’s been one that has been a source of so much division and so much conflict. I am sure that there are individuals in the military who would like to work in a professional military but, at least at the leadership level, the culture of brutality and impunity is so deeply ingrained that I don’t think you can reason with these generals. I think Myanmar does need a military, but a dramatically reformed military that will be answerable to the civilian government and that, over many years, will adopt a very different culture and will respect human rights instead of waging war on the people.

Phot of Scot Marciel

Scot Marciel

Visiting Practitioner Fellow on Southeast Asia, APARC
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The Irrawaddy spoke to Scot Marciel, former United States ambassador to Myanmar and currently a visiting scholar at APARC, about the current state of regional and international efforts to tackle the Myanmar crisis.

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Shorenstein APARC Japan Program April 18 Webinar information card: Japan's Foreign Policy in the Aftermath of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, including photo portraits of speakers Hiroyuki Akita, Yoko Iwama, and Kiyoteru Tsutsui

April 18, 5:00 p.m - 6:30 p.m. PT / April 19, 9:00 a.m. - 10:30 a.m. JT

Russia’s invasion in Ukraine has transformed the landscape of international security in a multitude of ways and reshaped foreign policy in many countries. How did it impact Japan’s foreign policy? From nuclear sharing to the Northern Territories, it sparked new debates in Japan about how to cope with Putin’s Russia and the revised international order. With NATO reenergized and the United States having to recommit some resources in Europe, how should Japan counter an expansionist China, an emboldened North Korea, and a potentially hamstrung Russia to realize its vision of Free and Open Indo-Pacific? What might be the endgame in Ukraine and how would it impact the clash of liberal and authoritarian forces in the Indo-Pacific region? Featuring two leading experts on world politics and Japan’s foreign policy, this panel tackles these questions and charts a way forward for Japan.

Square photo portrait of Yoko Iwama

Yoko Iwama is Professor of National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS). She is also the director of Security and Strategy Program and Maritime Safety and Security Program at GRIPS. 

She graduated from Kyoto University in 1986 and earned her PhD in Law. Having served as Research Assistant of Kyoto University (1994–97), Special Assistant of the Japanese Embassy in Germany (1998–2000), and Associate Professor at GRIPS (2000), she was appointed Professor at GRIPS in 2009. She was a student at the Free University of Berlin between 1989-1991, where she witnessed the end the reunification of the two Germanies. 

Her specialty is international security and European diplomatic history centering on NATO, Germany, and nuclear strategy. 

Her publications include John Baylis and Yoko Iwama (ed.) Joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty: Deterrence, Non-Proliferation and the American Alliance, (Routledge 2018); “Unified Germany and NATO,” (in Keiichi Hirose/ Tomonori Yoshizaki (eds.) International Relation of NATO, Minerva Shobo, 2012). 

Her newest book The 1968 Global Nuclear Order and West Germany appeared in August 2021 in Japanese. She is working on a co-authored book on the origins and evolution of the nuclear-sharing in NATO and a co-authored book on the Neutrals, the Non-aligned countries and the NPT.  

Square photo portrait of Hiroyuki Akita

Hiroyuki Akita is a Commentator of Nikkei. He regularly writes commentaries, columns, and analysis focusing on foreign and international security affairs. He joined Nikkei in 1987 and worked at the Political News Department from 1998 to 2002 where he covered Japanese foreign policy, security policy, and domestic politics. Akita served as Senior & Editorial Staff Writer from 2009 to 2017, and also worked at the “Leader Writing Team ” of the Financial Times in London in late 2017. 

 Akita graduated from Jiyu Gakuen College in 1987 and Boston University (M.A.). From 2006 to 2007, he was an associate of the US-Japan Program at Harvard University, where he conducted research on US-China-Japan relations. In March 2019, he won the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist Award, a prize for outstanding reporting of international affairs. He is an author of two books in Japanese: “Anryu (Power Game of US-China-Japan)”(2008), and “Ranryu (Strategic Competition of US-Japan and China)”(2016). 

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Kiyoteru Tsutsui is the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor, Professor of Sociology, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Deputy Director of the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, where he is also Director of the Japan Program. He is the author of Rights Make Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2018), co-editor of Corporate Responsibility in a Globalizing World (Oxford University Press, 2016) and co-editor of The Courteous Power: Japan and Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific Era (University of Michigan Press, 2021).  

 

Kiyoteru Tsutsui
Kiyoteru Tsutsui

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Yoko Iwama Professor & Center Director National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)
Hiroyuki Akita Commentator Nikkei
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