Category Archives: Asia

Donald Trump’s ‘I’ Presidency and American Foreign Policy

By Allie Spensley ‘20

According to a database of President Trump’s tweets, the issues that Trump has claimed he and he alone can fix include the situation in Israel, illegal immigration, U.S. infrastructure, unemployment, ISIS, the movement of jobs to Mexico, slow GDP, and global terrorism. This individualism rewrites the history of the executive’s relative power in American government. In Trump’s view, America’s policies—for better or worse—often hinge on his actions alone.

What are the implications of what Michael Steele has called “the ‘I’ presidency” in the realm of foreign policy? Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in June that Trump believes the presidency will achieve success or face failure only because of his own personal efforts, so he’s often unwilling to consult advisors. This viewpoint is supported by the level of turnover in the administration, which the Brookings Institution found is higher than the five most recent presidents.

One consequence has been the shifting nature of the presidential summit as a tool for diplomacy. As foreign policy expert Richard N. Haass has pointed out, the summit is Trump’s “favored approach to diplomacy,” perhaps because it reflects the personalist, relationship-based nature of the small meetings that bring about real estate success. Trump has refashioned the modern summit by throwing out the script. He has exchanged the carefully planned, largely symbolic affairs common in recent presidencies for a brief, hyper-productive model–the kind often used in the Cold War.

Examining Trump’s most controversial summits—the North Korea-United States summit on June 12, 2018 and the Trump-Putin summit on July 16, 2018—shows the benefits and drawbacks of this approach. Prior to both meetings, Trump set ambitious agendas and claimed their ultimate success or failure would be due to his personal performance. He eschewed preparation and refused to communicate with his closest advisors.

Before, during, and after, Trump described both summits as historic victories in which he quickly hashed out sustainable solutions to a wide range of issues—a kind of foreign-policy magic bullet. As Trump tweeted one day after the North Korea summit: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat.” Or, a day after Helsinki: “Big results will come!”

With his words and the inherently individualistic format of a summit, Trump asked the world to judge these meetings’ successes through his display of personal diplomatic strength. And the world complied, with mixed results.

In North Korea, this approach paid off among Trump’s own supporters: a Monmouth University poll found that 96 percent of Trump voters approved of the summit, making it one of the most popular actions of his presidency. Yet after the Russian summit, it backfired dramatically. After meeting with Putin, in a joint press conference Trump refused to endorse a report by US intelligence groups finding that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, and he was quickly criticized by media on both sides of the aisle. Even his typically vocal supporters—Newt Gingrich, Fox News—lambasted the President for seemingly putting as much trust in Putin as his own intelligence agencies. In both cases, too, sectors of U.S. media criticized Trump for lending respect and prestige to authoritarian leaders.

As a populist president, Trump needs to keep his supporters happy by presenting out-of-the-park successes. The forum of a summit seems to offer a perfect solution: as in the case of North Korea, a photo op, a self-congratulatory tweet, and a 90-minute private meeting can win voter approval with no real policy changes. But the one-on-one nature of the summit can highlight apparent divisions within the Trump government, as in the aftermath of the Helsinki press conference.

Either of these outcomes might repeat itself after Trump’s second summit with Kim Jong Un, to be held in late February. With a partial government shutdown and continued controversy over Russia and the US elections, Trump may be seeking a quick win along the lines of his June tweet that the nuclear threat was over. But how closely he will work with his aides in advance of the summit remains an open question, and one that’s important not only for Trump’s standing at home but for the balance of power in East Asia.

A Moral Balancing Act: The Vatican’s Deal with the CCP

By Maggie Baughman ‘21

In late September, the Vatican and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finalized an agreement that both allows for the Vatican to regain some degree of legitimate access to Chinese Catholics, and for the CCP to gain the Pope’s stamp of approval on state-nominated Catholic bishops. The deal can serve as a case study in Xi Jinping’s “Sinicization,” a process of altering ideologies, products, or other foreign imports to make them compatible with the Chinese socialist ideology, asserting a degree of CCP control over the foreign organization seeking a presence in Chinese society. In fact, this deal suggests a specific set of steps that the CCP regularly undertakes to force Western organizations (specifically businesses or nonprofits dependent on access to China such as tech companies, movie studios, universities, scholars, or aid organizations) to the negotiating table.

To examine what “Sinicization” means for the compromises Western organizations have to make to gain or sustain access to China, we can look at the complexities of the Pope’s deal with the CCP as an illustrative example of the contexts in which Western actors are compelled to make such compromises, and the nature of the sacrifices they must make to gain access to China. The moral sacrifices the Vatican chose to make – bluntly labelled “selling out” by various Western media agencies and Catholics in mainland China and Hong Kong – may have more nuanced implications, as proposed in a basic outline of the moral costs and benefits, which may be used to understand the choices made by other Western actors attempting to negotiate with the CCP. These “moral costs” can be more broadly understood as sacrifices of principles and ideals central to the organization’s value system, mission statement, or purpose, which allows for the translation of a “moral” code to a for-profit organization.

The first aspect of the agreement to consider is its political context, which is crucial to understanding both the urgency of the deal, and why any act of compromise at present can be framed as a “betrayal.” This deal comes at a fraught time for religious communities in China, including Catholics, who have experienced a severe tightening of restrictions on religious practice in conjunction with unprecedented implementation efforts. The sweeping scope of these religious activity laws has been the legal basis and policy impetus for much of the religious crackdown visible in China over the last year, most visibly the targeting of underground “house churches,” including the largest Protestant house church in China, and the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims (an issue with religious links, but largely identified as an ethnic and cultural conflict with religious extremism posed as an excuse). The legislation covers every aspect of religious organizations and their regulation, with notable clauses providing basis for financial crackdowns, interference with “large-scale religious activity,” even legalized groups, and the demolition of houses of religious groups “due to the needs of public interest.” It is in this climate, where government officials have been encouraged to crack down on religious activity, especially underground activity, that the Vatican and the CCP entered this most recent round of talks.

It appears that the increased level of conflict between Catholics in China and the CCP can be connected to the impetus to arrive at a negotiating table – the talks began in February, the month that the new religious regulations took effect. The increased repression of Catholics signaled a need for the Vatican to intervene – an act that may prove to have beneficial implications for the protection of Chinese Catholics, who can now rely on a legal relationship with the Pope for protection. The sequence of events, however, may suggest that the CCP has an incentive to crack down on vulnerable populations to draw international actors to the negotiating table. Without a crackdown, the Vatican would have had no push to compromise with China. Additionally, the Vatican’s choice to compromise immediately abandons the religious resistors who fought CCP oversight with papal blessing – with the Pope ordaining secret bishops and communicating with them in regards to their duties in China – for decades. This deal suggests that, in the short term, heightened political tensions may push actors to compromise moral standards in order to ensure a degree of legitimacy or influence (however limited) in China. However, the long term implications of making these deals under pressure may serve to incentivize CCP crackdowns on vulnerable populations. In essence, “Sinicization” may happen more often under pressure, but have more long-term consequences in these contexts.

Secondly, we can look at the contents of the deal as a reference point for what “Sinicization” means in practical terms. The implications of the deal for both sides are important to fully understand, but given that the text remains confidential, only speculation has been available so far. The rough outlines of the agreement appear to be that the CCP will have the right to nominate bishops for the Chinese Catholic Church, which the Vatican will then have the right to approve or veto – this much has been confirmed by a variety of Western media sources. The Pope’s immediate confirmation of seven CCP-nominated bishops, including two who are deputy chairmen of the CPCA and BCCCC (state-run Catholic organizations historically independent of the Vatican), suggests the veracity of this hypothesis.

The contents of the deal suggest that “Sinicization,” like most forms of authoritarian compromise, will inevitably serve the interests of both actors, but the effects on the Chinese population are harder to deduce. In this case, the deal evidently serves the interests of both sides – the Vatican, in normalizing relations with China, reclaims a level of control over some 10 million Catholics, while the CCP not only gains the Vatican’s stamp of approval, which legitimizes its previously independent Catholic organizations, but will likely receive help from the Pope in forcing “underground” churches to accept CCP-approved bishops. However, the implications of the deal on the overall welfare of the Chinese Catholic community are less certain.

It is also clear that “Sinicization” requires a specific set of compromises – the acceptance of CCP oversight and censorship, the role of CCP actors in mediating messages to the Chinese public, and the moderation of message and language to become compatible with not only authoritarianism, but also the specific requirements of “socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” the CCP adaptation of Marxism-Leninism devised by Mao Zedong. Any organization that wants access to China will by necessity accept these “Sinicization” guidelines, or risk expulsion and condemnation by the CCP, losing all access to the Chinese populace.

The implications of the Vatican’s compromise with the CCP will not be truly manifest until the full text of the agreement is publicly released, and the Vatican’s influence on protecting or undermining the religious freedom of Chinese Catholics is examined over the course of the following years. However, the deal provides a concrete example of Xi Jinping’s plans for “Sinicization” of outside organizations in China, and can be used to tease out the moral balancing act any foreign organization must consider when seeking to operate in China. From NGOs to overseas universities to religious organizations, all foreign actors must make sacrifices to gain access to China. From Google to Hollywood producers to Princeton University itself, every organization working in China must consider whether the benefits of continued access to the resources of the Chinese population are outweighed by the moral sacrifices demanded by collaborating with an authoritarian regime.

Bumps Along the New Silk Road: Are They As Big As We Think?

President Xi Jinping wasn’t exaggerating when he hailed it the “project of the century” at a Beijing summit in 2017. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) involves multi-trillion dollar investments in infrastructure development spanning 68 countries throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, with the aim of promoting regional connectivity and economic growth. Given the diminishing hegemony of the US in the geopolitical sphere, China’s ambitious undertaking has major implications for China as well as the rest of the globe. Since its bold take-off in 2013, however, BRI’s image has begun to wane in the face of accusations made under international scrutiny, particularly by the West.

One of the most contentious subjects of debate surrounding BRI is “debt-trap diplomacy.” With many of BRI’s loan recipients succumbing to soaring debt in recent years, Western powers are keen to warn that this stems from a grand Chinese scheme to capitalize on debt-based relations with developing countries. While these countries are certainly mired in debt, it’s a stretch to lay the blame for such issues on China under the “debt-trap” label, particularly when Western institutions are themselves culpable for the very behavior they condemn. Take the case of Zambia’s mounting national debt, which a September 2018 report by the British specialist publication Africa Confidential ascribes to allegedly unsustainable Chinese loans. This claim grossly exaggerates the extent of China’s impact on Zambia’s debt crisis, especially given that China accounts for a small part of sub-Saharan Africa’s aggregate debt sources (see chart below). According to statistics presented in The Economist in the same month, China likely holds a quarter to a third of Zambia’s external debt; while these figures aren’t small, they’re comparable to other creditors such as the US, World Bank, and the IMF, which for decades have been providing unsustainable loans to countries, plunging them into debt, and opening up their economies to international investors (primarily from Western countries). The Africa Confidential report further claims that Zesco—Zambia’s state-owned national power company—has been in talks regarding repossession by a Chinese company. The Zambian government refuted such allegations and denied the existence of any plans for Zesco’s privatization. It’s a tragic irony that the IMF and World Bank pushed for the privatization of the very same company in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Sources: For External Government Debt Stocks by Official and Private Creditors: International Debt Statistics, World Bank, For External Government Debt Stocks by Chinese Creditors: Lucas Atkins, Deborah Brautigam, Yunnan Chen, and Jyhjong Hwang 2017. “China-Africa Economic Bulletin #1: Challenges of and opportunities from the commodity price slump,” CARI Economic Bulletin #1. China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins,

Regardless of China’s contribution to the debt equation, it certainly hasn’t been profiting from such economic quandaries. According a March 2018 report released by the Center for Global Development, from 2001 to 2017, China restructured or waived loans for 51 debtor nations—the overwhelming majority of BRI participants—without taking possession of state assets, and a significant number have already undergone multiple restructurings. In fact, even in Venezuela—the single largest Chinese debtor country—a Chinese takeover of state flagship assets still hasn’t occurred, despite the fact China has become a victim of its lending: since the collapse of oil prices in 2014 and subsequent extreme oil-price volatility, Venezuela’s oil sector has floundered, which has not only hampered Venezuela’s ability to make loan repayments, but led to significant increases in China’s massive oil import bill. Conversely, for BRI countries like Sri Lanka that have experienced Chinese takeover of state assets, the process was reported to be peaceful and even carried out voluntarily. When critics denounced China’s repossession of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port as part of a debt-trap conspiracy, Karunasena Kodituwakku, the Sri Lankan ambassador to China shot down such accusations and emphasized that the proposal for handing over the port came not from Chinese government, but the Sri Lankan government; as other Sri Lankan representatives have noted, it made sense for Sri Lanka to welcome Chinese investment in the port, given that the vast majority of commercial shipping arriving into it was from China. Kodituwakku even conveyed his optimism about the port’s long-term prospects as a launchpad for Sri Lanka’s role in an emerging Asia.

Through the Western lens, another major allegation increasingly made against BRI is the “String of Pearls” theory. The term originated in a 2005 US study by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, asserting that China’s increased control of ports—“pearls”—along the Indian Ocean is a maneuver to militarily dominate the region. The assumption is that China would develop commercial facilities to support later military use, with the ultimate objective of carrying out major combat operations against India. Given the Indian Ocean’s rising global significance, geopolitical motivations are not inconceivable, but a consideration of available information suggests otherwise. As concluded in a 2014 report by a team of analysts at the US National Defense University, the current operations of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are characterized by its “light footprint” and emphasis on providing logistics support to overseas security missions. None of the suspected “pearl” sites, including Hambantota Port, have become military bases or facilities; according to Ambassador Kodituwakku, Sri Lanka has made it very clear to China that the port is simply an economic venture, and China has never asked to use it for anything else. Furthermore, the ports are subject to an international legal framework mandating that they remain under the sovereignty of the coastal state, as opposed to the port operator. All facts considered, PLAN’s behavior is not consistent with that of a country preparing a platform for massive conflict in the Indian Ocean. As indicated in the 2014 report by the National Defense University, even if China were to harbor such ideas, the “String of Pearls” model lacks the robust logistics infrastructure to support the needs of a large Chinese air and naval force focused on combat operations.

Given that China is addressing economic gaps that many traditional powers have failed to fill over the centuries, it perhaps deserves more credit and recognition for its ambitions with BRI. That said, China must understand the limitations to BRI’s potential if it lacks the endorsement of other major economic powers, especially now that China’s economy is showing signs of slowing: in the fall of 2018, China’s GDP growth decelerated to 6.5 percent, its slowest pace since 2009. Aside from trade friction with the US, China is struggling to tackle domestic debt problems; according to 2018 estimates by the Institute of International Finance (IIF), China’s debt to GDP ratio currently sits at 300 percent, which is nearly three times that of the US. An international lending spree certainly doesn’t relieve China’s difficulties, and at some point down the line, collaboration with other global powers may become the only economically viable option for realizing China’s BRI vision. If China co-lends with Western institutions and offers competitive tenders to all comers, BRI projects would likely benefit not only from increased financial security, but greater transparency and reduced risks for misappropriation of funds.

No matter how you slice BRI, the campaign is far from perfect. Since its outset, more protests have erupted, biodiversity in affected regions has plummeted, and in some areas, entire communities have lost their homes or traditional livelihoods. We might thank BRI critics for highlighting these sorts of issues and helping foster constructive improvements. However, one mustn’t lose sight of the countless new jobs, modes of enhanced transportation, and improved access to basic utilities that BRI has brought along with its development. Perhaps most importantly, we should be mindful of China’s demonstrated efforts to address its understood problems. For instance, after receiving criticism internationally for the financially unsustainable nature of certain BRI projects, China has demanded a study on the commercial viability of various projects, such as Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway project, before providing further funding. For our part as observers, we should acknowledge and welcome this progress, rather than simply probe for shortcomings.