An International Public Health and Virus Surveillance Network for National Security

By Deon Canyon, Sebastian Kevany and Michael S. Baker*


The monitoring and surveillance of novel and variant, emergent and resurgent, infectious viral diseases is a core need for global health and national security. The United States has not, to date, put a priority on the funding and resourcing of private and public laboratories to identify and monitor Covid variants and mutations. While the U.K. sequences 10% of its positive cases, the U.S. currently only inspects around 0.3-1.5% of positive tests for the presence of viral mutations, which is lower than Gambia, Senegal and even Latvia.

This created a “gaping hole in national security” as new virus variants continue to plague the world. Even the new and more proactive administration’s corrective National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, published in January 2021, failed to address this critical issue.

The Tracking COVID-19 Variants Act was introduced into Congress on February 4, 2021 to correct this – and aims to provide $2 billion to “ramp up national sequence-based surveillance and support our public health infrastructure.” However, as this paper will show, the U.S. has other significant resources within its Department of Defense (DoD) that can be brought to bear quite rapidly in this regard, and in a globally significant manner.


Increased Viral Surveillance

Investing in research on the effects of each mutation, resourcing agencies involved in genetic sequencing, and international information sharing are all fundamental to tracking viral mutations globally in the hope of assisting more effective community and medical responses. Freely available genetic sequences isolated from Covid-positive patients are currently stored in a GISAID database in Geneva, Switzerland.  Unfortunately, contributions to this database differ greatly between nations – though this is not associated with prosperity, technology, or population size.

For example, the U.K. has contributed 50% of the samples while the U.S. has only contributed 0.3%. This is problematic because the longer a virus remains in circulation without identification and sequencing, the more chance it has of mutating. If and when the Tracking COVID-19 Variants Act passes, the U.S. will move to the forefront in molecular viral detection. Stefano Bertuzzi, CEO of the American Society for Microbiology said, “Increasing sequencing capacity will play a key role in not only identifying, tracking, and mitigating the impact of the genetic new strains, but also vaccine development and distribution, testing, and getting our economy back on track.”

How Can the U.S. DoD Help?

The U.S. has the capacity to step up and create a defensive viral surveillance network to protect itself and the world from current and future catastrophic infectious disease outbreaks, but multilateral cooperation with all nations is an essential key to this strategy. The building blocks for this surveillance network are already present in the U.S. DoD, which created the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) to coordinate plans and actions on nuclear deterrence, weapons of mass destruction, and biothreats in 1998. In response to the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, DTRA was able to rapidly provide subject matter expertise, mobilize portable lab testing facilities, and disseminate field vaccines and treatment. In an emergency, DTRA can be supported by forward-deployed bases, forces, and surveillance resources.

Notably, the DoD has developed a network of overseas research laboratories that focus on infectious diseases that pose security concerns. The Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIM) in Thailand, and the Naval Medical Research Units No. 2 (NAMRU-2) in Indonesia are positioned to assume significant leadership roles in Indo-Pacific-wide viral surveillance. NAMRU-2 is present in Thailand, Laos, and Singapore, and Cambodia: when these assets are networked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), the Naval Medical Research Institute, and the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), they collectively form an effective and potent viral surveillance network that can then be expanded country by country.

Benefits of a Virus Surveillance Network for the Defense Sector

Among other considerations, the evolving pandemic environment requires ministries of defense to assess potential impacts of future pandemics on assumptions, doctrine and operational security constructs. Nations derive both goodwill and security from providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, while militaries use those opportunities to test various dual-purpose systems and joint service interoperability both during war and in peacetime. Of note, these operations may take place in disease-endemic areas or areas that are free of disease, with both having consequences for: (1) force and community protection; and (2) degree of commitment between the assistor and the assisted.

Yet, the coordination of international military training exercises and relief operations becomes increasingly more complex in the presence of novel variants and mutations as restrictions on travel, movement and engagement come into place. Military public health units therefore need to become well integrated with planners to meet the increasing demand for pandemic skills and training; health protection considerations in training and exercise programs assume greater importance as local surges in novel variants and mutations alter the parameters and requirements for not just exercises but also wargames and training for multiple, simultaneous crises.

As outbreaks shift in intensity from locale to locale, military personnel will inevitably be faced with operating in environments that are pandemic-degraded to a greater or lesser degree. The threat of viral infection and the actual spread of infectious agents requires preparedness in the form of personal protective equipment, prophylactics, medical care, and assistance for psychological well-being. In higher risk environments, when people must work together, infrastructure and vehicles require modification to reduce exposure to airborne and otherwise vectored disease pathogens, thus increasing environmental impacts and energy footprints.

‘Public Alignment’

Garnering cross-sectoral, whole-of-society alignment is crucial when disease agents rely on public behaviors for survival and dissemination. Creating social narratives that enlist popular support is essential for changing harmful behaviors, fostering commitment to action, and creating more advocates for positive action. As Covid became increasingly politicized in the U.S., the impact of politics may have significantly increased Covid deaths. Political choices by state governance, such as those related to mandating mask-wearing or staying at home, have been shown to directly impact infection rates and subsequent deaths.

Internationally, as well, most nations adopted a more proactive posture based on public health considerations rather than by political ideology to minimize the threatening outcomes of an evolving pandemic. Of particular note, from early on in the pandemic, nations that more successfully handled the pandemic, such as Taiwan, were able to project more diplomatic influence than nations with anti-science elements in government.  The newfound influence of countries like New Zealand still prevails in the present day.

More broadly, as chronic diseases have become dominant, the number of infectious disease experts and doctors has decreased over time. This has created a shortage of personnel capable of preparing for and responding to episodic surges in infectious diseases. The potential for outbreaks to become national tragedies requires a reserve force. While some of these reservists may come from volunteers in the larger skilled civilian force, and even the private sector, the episodic nature of the threat renders it equally suitable for the military to be the primary preparing and responding force; the latter also often have extensive experience acquired through operating in international endemic areas exposed to a broader array of biological threats. The U.S Public Health Service is now capable of mobilizing an active duty medical and health-related expertise, and has just established a “Ready Reserve Force” which will be accessing staff this year.

These complex public health threats and opportunities are thus best managed with joint-force action, interagency collaboration, and international interoperability: when combined with the confusions of politics, however, they risk a descent into chaos. Similarly, for decades, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises and operations have been a mainstay for practicing capacities and interoperability, but these efforts are reducing as nations become more self-sufficient. Thus, the future of humanitarian assistance needs to both (1) be framed and designed as an apolitical effort and (2) be rethought in a world in which pathogen response is growing in importance.


While infectious diseases may eventually become a thing of the past, they currently continue to evolve and disrupt nations around the globe. This process is exacerbated by demographic, political, and climate change pressures on populations that push humanity into habitats that were once wilderness or were considered unfit for living. Thus, our potential exposure to novel agents remains on the rise in line with population growth. The next pandemic may yet strike while we remain exposed due to rapid, unsustainable urbanization, climate change, destructive food harvesting and producing practices, globalization, and reliance on other nations for essential items.

At the broadest level, humanity’s resilience depends on our ability to gain insight into how these driving forces of change will play out in the years to come. In facing these complex public health and humanitarian challenges, governments must develop more insightful and coherent policies that include a more significant role for the security sectors. Investment in thought leadership and serious consideration of what might be coming down the road in the future must likewise become ingrained in our organizations as we strive to mitigate these ‘known unknowns’. As we continue to face an evolving and mutating Covid as well as other future biothreats, the U.S. and partner nations need to invest in a robust and responsive international viral surveillance network so that the governments of the world can be provided with leadership in responding more rapidly, cohesively, and effectively to protect their populations.

* Drs. Canyon and Kevany are professors at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA.  Dr. Baker is a retired U. S. Navy rear admiral. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government. May 5, 2021

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Date: 2021/05/06

The Joint Recovery of Fallen Soldiers from the Korean War: One way for American, Chinese, North and South Korean soldiers to cooperate and reconcile

By Dr. Sungmin Cho


While the Biden Administration was reviewing its North Korea policy, Pyongyang once again raised tensions by firing two ballistic missiles on March 24, 2021.[1] Given North Korea’s triple whammy in 2020, — namely the pandemic-related health crisis, economic crisis, and natural disaster —, experts anticipate that the stress-ridden country is likely to continue military provocations. Therefore they urge the Biden administration to send an early signal to Pyongyang for talks and diplomacy.[2] In fact, the Biden administration has already reached out to North Korea, but Pyongyang has not responded.[3] A new approach is needed to break through the diplomatic stalemate on the Korean Peninsula, where uncertainty and the potential for future crisis has been mounting in the midst of strategic competition between the U.S. and China.

This paper proposes an idea for diplomatic breakthrough: soldiers from the four countries of the U.S., China, North and South Korea can work together to recover the remains of their predecessors who died during the Korean War seventy years ago. Based upon the information collected from Korean, Chinese and English sources, I explain how the joint recovery project can be implemented and why each country is likely to join the multilateral cooperation. The recovery of war remains may not directly contribute to denuclearization of North Korea or the strategic competition between the U.S. and China, but the project can help to avoid the worst-possible outcomes from the current developments surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

The Joint Recovery Project and its Intended Effects

The joint recovery can start from the Arrowhead Ridge, located inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) of the Korean Peninsula. Between November 1951 and July 1952, two South Korean Army Divisions, the Second Division of the U.S. Army, a French battalion and the Chinese troops fought to take over the Arrowhead Ridge for nine months.[4] Based upon the Compressive Military Agreement signed between two Koreas on September 19, 2018, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense Agency for KIA Recovery and Identification (MAKRI) started excavation in the area of Arrowhead Ridge.[5] In 2019 and 2020, MAKRI found the body parts of 404 soldiers in total.[6] Some 17,000 articles were found together, which include an identification tag of a French soldier, the U.S. bulletproof jackets and the Chinese gas masks.[7] According to the Colonel Moon, the head of South Korea’s Joint Recovery Project task force, the bodies and articles were found in surprisingly good conditions in the area, which makes the battle scenes inside the DMZ a good place to start joint recovery project.[8]

Once successfully launched, the soldiers from four countries can move to the site of “the Battle of Chosin Reservoir” inside North Korea. Between November 27 and December 13 of 1950, the brutal 17-day battle in freezing winter resulted in the casualties of 10,495 for the U.S. and South Korean forces and 48,156 for the Chinese troops.[9] For this reason, the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) lists the Chosin reservoir as a priority site for search within North Korea.[10] Although they could not reach the agreement, there is a precedent that Washington and Pyongyang had previously discussed the possibility of joint recovery project in the Chosin reservoir area. If China and North Korea agree, it will make the first case that the soldiers from the four countries cooperate for a humanitarian mission on the soil of North Korea.

The joint recovery project is feasible because four countries already have abundant experiences of repatriating the war remains at bilateral settings. (1) Between South Korea and the United States, the DPAA and MARKI have conducted joint identification twice to four times per year since 2008.[11] (2) Between North Korea and the United States, during the 2018 summit in Singapore, President Trump and Chairman Kim agreed to “commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified”.[12] North Korea then repatriated 55 boxes of the remains of the U.S. troops in August 2018.[13] (3) Between North and South Koreas, as noted above, the two countries signed an agreement to conduct joint recovery at the Arrowhead Ridge in 2019.[14] (4) Between South Korea and China, a total of 716 sets of Chinese remains have been transferred from South Korea to China between 2014 and 2020. (5) Between the U.S. and China, the two governments signed an agreement in 2008 that the Chinese researchers at the Archives Department of the PLA would review classified documents and provide relevant information to the U.S. counterparts.[15] The series of bilateral cooperation constitutes a favorable condition to launch multilateral cooperation.

The joint recovery project can generate multiple effects in a positive direction. First and foremost, its symbolic implication would be powerful: the soldiers from the countries who once fought a war gather in the same place, but not to fight again but to cooperate for a peaceful mission this time. The act of recovering and identifying the fallen heroes together would symbolize the process of reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula. The humanitarian mission not only has moral ground in and of itself, but also can yield some strategic effects. The joint recovery project will provide an opportunity for strategic communication between Washington and Pyongyang. Through the meetings to discuss the joint recovery project, Washington can evaluate Pyongyang’s thinking on the conditions and timing for the resumption of denuclearization negotiation.[16] Likewise, the joint recovery project can facilitate the dialogue between Washington and Beijing for the crisis management regarding Korean Peninsula.

Each Country’s Likely Motivations to Participate in the Joint Recovery Project

From the U.S. perspective, it has been challenging to create an opportunity for escalation control while pressuring North Korea for denuclearization at the same time. A growing number of experts in the U.S. call for a new approach toward North Korea with a focus on arms control as a realistic goal instead of disarmament or complete denuclearization, which are deemed unachievable at the moment.[17] Yet no one went far to claim that Washington should completely abandon the goal of denuclearization and officially accept North Korea as a nuclear state.[18] As long as the denuclearization of North Korea remains an ultimate goal of the U.S. policy, it is inevitable that the security tensions persist between the U.S. and North Korea. As much as Washington aims to make North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, it is necessary to find ways to relieve the tensions during the negotiation process. The joint recovery project can serve to control the escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

From North Korea’s perspective, the joint recovery project may look useful to pursue other economic benefits. Pyongyang may well demand a de-facto economic compensation for the participation in the multilateral cooperation. Indeed, North Korea previously had claimed a total of $22 million for the repatriation of 628 bodies of U.S. troops between 1990 and 2005. Vincent Brooks, a former commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), said that the repatriation of the remains of U.S. troops stopped in 2019, due to Pyongyang’s excessive demand of money and materialistic compensations.[19] But knowing what North Korea wants, the three countries of U.S., China and South Korea can discuss the maximum amount of the fund that they can form in the name of economic incentives for North Korea’s cooperation. The amount does not have to meet North Korea’s expectations or demands, but certainly offering something would be better than nothing to encourage Pyongyang to join the multilateral cooperation.

It may not be easy to persuade China to join the multilateral efforts, but it is not impossible either. Beijing has been failing to meet Washington’s expectations to exert influence over Pyongyang for denuclearization. [20] China has not thoroughly executed the economic sanctions against North Korea, as required by the UN Security Resolution.[21] With the proposal of joint recovery, however, Beijing is not asked to negatively pressure Pyongyang this time, but to positively persuade North Korea to join the reconciliation efforts. Cooperating for humanitarian and peaceful mission will provide a diplomatic opportunity for China to enhance its international image as well.[22] Beijing also has a domestic interest in recovering the remains of fallen troops from the Korean War. The Chinese government has utilized the repatriation of war remains from South Korea as a propaganda opportunity to boost the military morale and nationalism.[23] On April 16, 2020, China’s Ministry of Veteran Affairs established the Center for Accounting the Remains of War Fallen (lieshi yihai souxun jianding zhongxin 烈士遗骸搜寻鉴定中心).[24] Having both diplomatic and domestic motivations, Beijing is more likely to endorse the joint recovery project.

South Korea would welcome the proposal most enthusiastically. The joint recovery project perfectly fits the Moon Jae-in government’s vision of reconciliation and peace on the Korean Peninsula, which also might serve to ameliorate South Korea’s dilemma between the U.S. as security ally and China as top trading partner. One cannot exclude the possibility that the conservative party may win the next presidential election in March 2022 and return to the competitive approach against North Korea. Still, the conservative government shares the same goal of security and stability of the Korean Peninsula. As long as Washington supports the joint recovery project, South Korea’s conservative groups would not necessarily oppose the continuation of multilateral efforts for humanitarian mission. The international community’s endorsement for the U.S.-China cooperation would reinforce South Korea’s confidence in pushing for the joint recovery project, whether the conservatives or the progressives are in power.

Conclusion: Two-Track Approach

Of course, the joint recovery project may not contribute to the denuclearization of North Korea or U.S. strategic competition with China. It is also possible that North Korea may use the humanitarian mission as a distraction from its continued development of nuclear and missile capabilities. Pyongyang can use the recovery project as an opportunity to demand the peace declaration, and then the withdrawal of the USFK. Beijing too can use the reconciliation event as an excuse to demand a reduction in US-South Korea military exercises. In fact, such worst-case scenarios could result from any line of engagement with North Korea or China. But, so long as Washington and Seoul are cautious of such developments, they will be able to quickly notice the early signs if Pyongyang or Beijing try to exploit the humanitarian mission. Concerns for the worst-case scenarios should not discourage the two-track approach of pursuing the joint recovery project in parallel with denuclearization negotiation or strategic competition.

Joint recovery is proposed not as a silver bullet to solve the problems on the Korean Peninsula, but as a guardrail to prevent the worsening of the situation. Denuclearization of North Korea and prevailing in the strategic competition with China are both important goals for the U.S. and its allies, but no one wants to see another war on the Korean Peninsula. One of key lessons from the Korean War is the importance of direct communication between competitors in international politics. Beijing underestimated Washington’s commitment to defend South Korea in 1950. In turn, Washington did not seriously take Beijing’s signal to intervene once the UN forces crossed the 38th parallel line.[25] Had they conveyed and understood each other’s resolve and interests more directly, they might have been able to avoid the bloody conflict that President Eisenhower found wasteful: the borders after the war remain virtually identical to the prewar frontiers at the 38th parallel at a cost of millions of human lives.[26] If one can agree that having one more channel of communication and one more contact for dialogue would do no harm to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, the joint recovery project will certainly provide such opportunities.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government. April 2021

[*] Dr. Cho is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

[1] Laura Bicker, “North Korea fires two ballistic missiles into the sea,” BBC News. March 25, 2021. Available at

[2] For example, Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a U.S.-based research and consulting firm, said failing to send early signals for talks could give North Korea a free pass to raise threats. See Christy Lee, “Early Signals to North Korea Seen as Key to Keeping Door Open to Diplomacy,” Voice of America. March 7, 2021. Available at

[3] The Biden administration official said there had been no active dialogue between the United States and North Korea for more than a year, including at the end of Trump’s administration, “despite multiple attempts during that time by the United States to engage.” See “No North Korea Response to Biden Administration Outreach,Voice of America. March 13, 2021. Available at

[4] “그래픽 뉴스: 남북공동유해발굴 (Graphic News: South-North Korea Joint Recovery)” Yeonhap News. November 20, 2020. Available at

[5] Jo, Hye-rim. “[From the Scene] DMZ uncovered: Traces of Korean War left untouched on Arrowhead Ridge,” The Korea Herald. June 2, 2019. Available at

[6] “돌아오지 못한 청년들…남북공동사업 내년 봄 가능할까 (Young soldiers not returned…would the inter-Korea project be possible in the next spring?).” KBS News. November 20, 2020. Available at

[7] “Graphic News: South-North Korea Joint Recovery,” Yeonhap News.

[8] “Young soldiers not returned…would the inter-Korea project be possible in the next spring?” KBS News.

[9] Roy Appleman. Escaping the Trap: The US Army X Corps in Northeast Korea, 1950. Texas A&M University Press (June 1, 2000); Xue, Yan (徐焰) and Li, Jian (李健) 朝鲜战争—长津湖之战四 [Korean War — Battle of Changjin Lake, Part Four] (in Chinese) Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (1990).

[10] Eric Talmadge, “Remains of U.S. MIAs in North Korea in political limbo,” Military Times. March 24, 2016. Available at

[11] ““한미 공동 유해발굴로 동맹 더 굳건 (The U.S.-South Korea alliance hardened with joint recovery project).” Korea Policy Briefing. June 12, 2009. Available at

[12] “READ: Full text of Trump-Kim signed statement,” CNN. June 12, 2018. Available at

[13] Hyun, Hye-ran. “트럼프, 북미회담 전에 미군 유해발굴 협상현황 보고받는다(President Trump will be briefted about the recovery and repatriation project before the U.S.-DPRK summit.).” Yeonhap News. January 31, 2019. Available at

[14] “Graphic News: South-North Korea Joint Recovery,” Yeonhap News.

[15] Du, Yulu. 2008. “我军开放党案呈现人道主义关怀 (Our military’s opening archives of party documents demonstrates our care for humanitarian mission),” Beijing dang’an 4. 33-34. While the progress under the agreement has been slow, the DPAA Director Kelly McKeague acknowledged that the POW/MIA cooperation between the U.S. and China has yielded some new information, periodically renewed. See Daniel Wertz. “Korean War POW/MIA Accounting Efforts,” Issue Brief. The National Committee on North Korea. December 2018. Available at

[16] In the similar context, Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, commented, “I believe that as part of the administration’s policy review, it makes sense to establish a private channel of communications to reach out to North Korea and to evaluate North Korea’s response.” Lee, “Early Signals to North Korea Seen as Key to Keeping Door Open to Diplomacy.”

[17] Harry Kazianis, “How Donald Trump Can Reach a Peace Deal with North Korea,” The National Interest. April 15, 2019. Available at; Van Jackson, “Risk Realism: The Arms Control Endgame for North Korea Policy,” Center for a New American Security, report. September 24, 2019. Available at

[18] David Santoro, “North Korea: The Folly of War,” posted at Real Clear Defense. August 9, 2017. Available at

[19] Lee, Yun-tae, “브룩스 前 사령관 “미군 유해 발굴 논의 중단, 北의 ‘웃돈’ 요구 때문 (Brooks, a former Commander, said the recovery discussion with North Korea stopped because of Pyongyang’s excessive demand of premium),” Dong-a Ilbo, Septembe 20, 2020. Available at

[20] Before his meeting with Chinese counterpart in Alaska in March 2021, the U.S. Secretary of State Blinken commented, “Virtually all of North Korea’s economic relationships, its trade, are with or goes through China, so it has tremendous influence.” Jason Strother, “U.S., China Diplomats Meeting in Alaska,” VOA. March 18, 2021. Available at

[21] “North Korea defies sanctions with China’s help, UN panel says,” The Guardian. April 17, 2020. Available at

[22] The Chinese authorities have particularly selected the Korean Peninsula, along with Afghanistan, the Middle East, cyber-security, climate change, public health, as a regional issue that the U.S. and China can “engage in close coordination and cooperation.” See the article signed by Yang Jiechi, a Political Bureau Member of the Chinese Communist Party. “Full text of Yang Jiechi’s signed article on China-U.S. relations.” Xinhua News. August 7, 2020. Available at

[23] Wang, Jingqiang. 2020. “Remains of 117 Chinese soldiers killed in Korean War returned,” Xinhuanet. 27 September. Available at

[24] 退役军人事务部 (Ministry of Veteran Affairs). “退役军人事务部烈士纪念设施保护中心,退役军人信息中心在京挂牌成立(Ministry of Veteran Affairs Commemoration of Martyrs Center, Veterans Information Center have been established in Beijing.)” posted on April 16, 2020. Available at

[25] Thomas J. Christensen, “Threats, Assurances, and the Last Chance for Peace: The Lessons of Mao’s Korean War Telegrams.” International Security 17, no. 1 (1992): 122-54.

[26] Martin J. Medhurst, “Text and Context in the 1952 Presidential Campaign: Eisenhower’s “I Shall Go to Korea” Speech.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30, no. 3 (2000): 464-84.

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Date: 2021/04/26

The Sino-Russian Approach to the Maritime: A Mare Clausem System?

By Dr. John Hemmings *

The mention in the recently released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of emerging technologies and non-traditional domains is to be welcomed, particularly the focus on cyberspace, space, and artificial intelligence (AI). In addition to increasing the US’ conventional deterrence capabilities, the increase in resources and focus give our forces the ability to push back and fight in the information domain, a space where Russia and China are increasing the tempo of their gray zone operations and influence campaigns. However, as the West increases its capacities in these non-traditional sectors, we must not forget the basic truths of the current global order. At its heart, the rules-based order is more of an onion with overlapping architectures, with a core, based on the maritime domain. And it is within that system that China and Russia are seeking to rewrite the rules.

The maritime domain covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface. As a result, more than 90 per cent of global than 90 percent of global trade takes place by sea, with 200 countries having ports capable of handling container shipping, according to a 2018 World Shipping Council study. In 2019, the total value of annual world shipping trade was estimated to be $14 trillion (to put that in perspective, the IMF put China’s GDP at that amount that same year). Despite a contraction in the sector relating to the effects of the US-China trade war and the COVID pandemic, the global market for cargo shipping remains robust and is expected to rebound in 2021. The importance of the maritime domain to the survival of nations has long been recognized, as sea access allows for states to become stronger through trade, while sea power allows for states to contest or deny trade to other states.

The development of the current “free sea” or mare liberum system was not an inevitable outcome of historic trends. While it is true that various empires have struggled to assert control over the sea as they have over land, it is not for a lack of trying. A number states have tried to lay claim to navigational, fishing, and trade rights in what are now known as international waters. During the 15th century, Castile (Spain) and Portugal attempted to enforce a “closed sea” or mare clausem system across the globe with the 1454 Treaty of Tordesillas dividing the maritime domain into a Portuguese Hemisphere (covering the south Atlantic, Indian Ocean, right up to the southern shore of Japan) and a Spanish Hemisphere (covering the mid-Pacific to the coastlines of the New World). While the agreement was initially bilateral, they attempted to give the treaty universal authority by lobbying the Vatican to add its weight to the agreement. In 1455, Pope Nicholas V dully issued the Romanus Pontifex Bull which did just that. While it is questionable to what extent these principles were widely accepted in Europe – France refused to accept them as binding. For example, Spain and Portugal believed these waters, their islands, and contiguous territories were the property of the crown.  Hugo Grotius’ seminal text The Free Sea in 1609 was as much about negating this order as it was proposing the foundations of a new one.

When considering Russian actions in the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Chinese actions in the Southern Sea Route (SSR) between Asia and Europe, we must consider whether these constitute an incremental attack on the underlying principles of mare liberum and an attempt to assert rules and norms more in keeping with mare clausem. What are the grounds for believing that they are doing so?

Extended jurisdiction: At the heart of what Russia and China are doing in the Arctic and the South China Sea is their attempts to extend special rights over waterways that are quite expanded from those afforded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). According to Section 3, Article 17 of UNCLOS, “ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.”  In asserting the right to ask “advanced permission” of foreign naval vessels that seek to carry out “innocent passage” through its territorial waters, China is infringing on the rights of other seafaring states. This is compounded by its drawing of straight baselines around islands, islets, and claiming territorial waters for submerged features that do not deserve them. Similarly, Russia has begun to assert a conditionality upon the rights of other nations to “innocent passage” in the NSR (beyond those stated in UNCLOS) and it has announced a requirement for vessels to give 45 days’ notice and request permission from the Russian government for foreign vessels to transit. The Russian Izvestia newspaper stated at the time that “Russia is taking the Northern Sea Route under protection.”

Location, Location, Location: While many states have had protectionist maritime policies within their own territorial waters, few impact global trade in the way that Russian and Chinese claims do. Both states are carrying out their activities in seas that also straddle the most direct routes between the manufacturing heartlands of Asia and the advanced economies of Europe. For China, the southern sea route straddles access to Middle East oil and burgeoning African markets. Around 30% of global maritime crude oil trade – around 15 million barrels per day – transits the South China Sea. While the Northern Sea Route is not yet functioning as a year-round trade route, it saw 32 million tons of cargo volume in 2020 and is set to continue rising. In 2016, the World Economic Forum Global Advisory Council on the Arctic predicted that 30 percent of Asia-Europe container trade would transit the NSR by 2030 since it is 35 percent faster than the southern sea route. The area is also thought to be home to abundant fishing prospects and untapped carbon reserves

Military Coercion: Both states have sought to codify their expansionist maritime claims in national laws and used the presence of localized military forces to enforce their claims. China’s “island fortresses” in the South China Sea have been extensively covered in Western media through think tanks like the CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which uses commercially available satellite imaging for their analysis. According to AMTI, China has bolstered these islands with formidable airfields, hangars for combat aircraft, radar and sensor arrays, and mobile surface-to-air and anti-ship missile systems. In the NSR, Russia has spent considerable resources building up its air and maritime early warning systems and reopened 50 previously closed Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic – including 13 airbases, 10 radar stations, and 20 border outposts. It established the Arctic Strategic Command in 2014, strengthened the Northern Fleet, and updated its naval strategy in 2017 to include a large Arctic component. It has also developed and tested new Arctic-based cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. In sum, it would appear that both China and Russia have – with little fanfare or resistance – sought to assert political and military control over fulcrum points of maritime sea trade.

In some ways, the rise of China is more of concern because of its economic heft and the ability use this coercively among regional nations. While the ambition of President Xi Jinping to turn his nation into a “maritime great power” can be viewed as a natural and inevitable result of China’s rise as the global manufacturing hub and top exporting nation, there are worrying signs that it will reshape the basic rules of the order to suit its preferences. Doing so will help Beijing’s global ambition to “move closer to center stage.” The growth of china’s port ownership around key trade routes and maritime chokepoints add more influence and power over the maritime order, while its growing naval clout also means it may have the power to enforce these new rules. In September 2020, the US released a report acknowledging that China’s fleet had surpassed that of the US in numbers (350 to 293).

Taken together, these shifts in maritime order – legal, political, and military – portend a maritime domain with new rules and norms suited to the preferences of Beijing and Moscow. They are to the detriment of states who rely on the SSR and NSR for future economic growth and prosperity and this where the heart of the US’ force posture should lay. When debating the US as either a mid-Atlantic power or an Indo-Pacific power, it is clear that it must be a maritime power and work with other like-minded seafaring democracies to maintain a free and open sea. It will be down to the US’ policymakers to work with the Quad to ensure continued access through the Southern Sea Route for all. It will also require a concerted effort to get NATO to shift more attention and resources to the north, with a Three Eyes (Canada, US, and UK) common approach to respond to Russian activity.

Such is China’s way of looking at the sea that Andrew Lambert warned that if it replaced the United States as the world’s leading power, “it would shatter the global economy and the sea power model that sustains it.” Let us hope such an occurrence is a remote one.

* Dr. Hemmings is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government. March 2021

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Date: 2021/03/31

Anti-Vaccine Sentiment – An Existential Disrupter of National and International Security

By Deon Canyon and Sebastian Kevany*

Vaccine Fears versus Epidemic Containment
There are at least 51 brands of viral vaccines containing inactivated or attenuated viruses. Inactivated vaccines prompt an immune response by introducing dead virus particles, while attenuated vaccines contain non-pathogenic live virus particles. These and other vaccines have been extremely effective around the world in preventing 6 million deaths annually, while in the United States, nine diseases have been reduced by 99%.

People are unimmunized for various reasons. Most are children who miss out on basic immunization in developing nations due to lack of access. For instance, 190,000 children die annually in Ethiopia due to a lack of vaccine coverage and antibiotics. Some people have medical exemptions due to weak immune systems or severe allergies and reactions to vaccines or their components. Some are allowed to opt-out due to religious beliefs with no substantiating evidence. Some opt-out for personal or philosophical reasons, including believing in disproved theories. Despite the existence of evidence against the bulk of perceived vaccine risks, anti-vaccine sentiments persist and grew by 7.8 million since 2019 on Facebook due to unsubstantiated COVID vaccine concerns.

The causes of this fear and mistrust are manifold, ranging from historical fears of vaccination experimentation, ethnic-related side effects; misinformation on vaccine effectiveness and efficacy; and a widespread ‘wait and see’ approach by more conservative elements of the world’s population, many of whom would prefer to observe potential problems amongst the initial cohort, and await associated trouble shooting, rather than put themselves in the front line of participants.

The unprecedentedly rapid speed of COVID-19 vaccine development and approval, combined with the ongoing doubts over the duration of effectiveness and the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing those vaccinated from acting as unknowing carriers of the virus, should also be taken into consideration. All vaccines currently lie under emergency use authorizations (EUAs) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their global counterparts. In such a situation, a certain amount of doubt, mistrust, and fear, at the population level, is acceptable.

Even in non-crisis conditions, governments can tolerate a certain level of anti-vaccine behavior because vaccines protect unimmunized people through herd protection, which occurs when a sufficient proportion of the group is immune. Unfortunately, unimmunized people do not protect society; rather, they endanger it through harm to themselves, harm to others, and increasing the health burden on society, which drives up both insurance rates and health risks for all.

Many experts expect that COVID-19 will persist into the future due to a lack of herd immunity manifesting in regular winter surges. While some predict that these infections will be mild and somewhat akin to the common cold, others predict that SARS-CoV-2 may become a fairly unpredictable seasonal scourge due to anti-vaxxers, waning immunity, viral mutations, and a consequent inability to reach herd immunity.

Yet, for this extensive global social and medical experiment to have any hope of success, acceptance of vaccinations is essential at the community and individual level. And yet, the latest Pew polling results show that 30% of adults in the US will likely forgo vaccination, and 15% will certainly not get vaccinated.

The Need for a Hard Line against Doubters
This situation would be morally and ethically acceptable, perhaps, were it not for the potential impact on those members of society who cannot accept the vaccine for allergy or other health reasons and who therefore rely on broader population-level coverage to have any hopes of protection. However, public outrage is growing in many areas due to the existential threat posed by the unvaccinated. Vaccine refusal is not simply a matter of avoiding personal risk. It is effectively weaponizing a segment of a population who can potentially become infected and harm or even kill others and represents an incredible degree of selfishness and disregard for the lives of others.

This groundswell of concern is driving political decisions in a new direction. In Israel, though no formal punitive restrictions have been applied to vaccine skeptics, there is already tension between those who accept and those who reject vaccinations. Questions over civil rights, privacy issues, and potential discrimination against those who reject offers of the vaccine are already in play. Similarly, in France, a mass anti-vaccine movement continues to delay coverage and health security at the national and even the European level.

After Greece proposed having a vaccine passport, several high-level meetings were held, which resulted in the vice president of the European Union Commission revealing that various options were being considered for the handling of travel in Europe, including the introduction of electronic vaccination certificates.

Israel led the world in vaccination coverage and was the first to face the challenge of balancing the need to protect a population against the rights of individuals: a world that allows people to refuse vaccination must institute protective mechanisms to ensure they do not endanger the rest of the population. In this alternate quasi-Darwinian world, cohorts who trust and accept the risks of vaccines are best protected by them, while those cohorts who do not accept offers of vaccinations find themselves placed in different social and public health categories – ones in which, potentially, rates of morbidity and mortality will be significantly higher than in the vaccine acceptance cadre.

The New Normal?
Thus, removing lockdowns and reopening a state could easily include leaving certain restrictions in place for the unvaccinated. The Israeli Health Minister has warned, “Whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind.” Employers would be perfectly within their rights to exclude anti-vaxxers from the workplace, while unions are trying to minimize this by recommending regular expensive testing. In parallel, entertainment centers, retail outlets, resorts, cruise liners, and airports could protect their clients by restricting access to those with vaccine certificates.

In general, governments are being slow to react and pass laws on either side of this balance between protecting everyone versus protecting the unimmunized, which has resulted in municipalities and businesses instituting their own rules. However, in Israel, a law was passed by parliament to permit the Health Ministry to send the names of unvaccinated people to municipalities because vaccination is now a public, not a private concern. Exclusion policies will certainly have a significant impact on children who cannot go to school, while adults face increasing isolation and discrimination as they are forced to remain working and to purchase from home. According to a legal opinion, employers are expected to accommodate unvaccinated staff by allowing them to telework or work in separate quarters, but will likely fire those who cannot comply.

In turn, national and international security considerations come into play. Security sectors, including Police, National Guard, and national military forces will have to carefully plan how to deal with anti-vaccine sentiments both amongst their personnel, amongst the populations they serve, and in terms of assistance with international vaccine operations.

National security may also be compromised by delays in returning societies and economies to pre-pandemic levels of performance in those countries with high levels of vaccine refusal. Nations whose populations that chose to ‘wait-and-see’ if COVID vaccines are necessary may also experience international isolation resulting in continuing economic decline – with commensurate destabilizing internal security effects.

Vaccines do more than save lives. They provide communities a chance to thrive. The COVID crisis, manifesting high uncertainty, threat and urgency, requires advanced systems thinking on a wide range of strategies to deal with possible outcomes to mitigate the existential consequences for communities and health systems. Policy-makers thus need to move away from being perpetually responsive in a knee-jerk fashion by engaging in the type of thinking required to be better prepared to get, and stay, ahead of the curve.

* Drs. Canyon and Kevany are professors at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government. March 2021

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Date: 2021/03/26

Looking Forward: Pandemic, Economic, Vaccine and Social Predictions for ‘Year Two’

By Sebastian Kevany and Deon Canyon*

Summary:  Over a year in to the global pandemic, demand for prognoses and models that will assist in determining key decisions and planning remains as strong as ever – resulting in entire industries that provide forecasts, foresight and insight into possible future outcomes. This demand is in spite of the numerous failures of scientists, academics, politicians, and modelers to work out what is going to happen next.  Nonetheless, the authors attempt to advise on policy and planning decisions for professional activities over the coming six months, up to Autumn / Fall 2021.

Never Make Predictions

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” So goes the cliché regarding efforts to determine, in advance, events that have not yet occurred.  Yet, over a year in to the global pandemic, demand for prognoses and models that will help determine key decisions and planning remains as strong as ever – resulting in entire industries that provide forecasts, foresight and insight into possible future outcomes.

This demand is in spite of the numerous failures of scientists, academics, politicians, and modelers to work out what is going to happen next.  This ranges from the excessively pessimistic predictions of Neil Ferguson (and his colleagues at WHO) at the start of the epidemic to political predictions in the United Kingdom that normality would be assumed again by Christmas 2020.  In both cases, the answer was somewhere in between.

Learning from the Winter

In attempting to prognosticate for the next six months, fortunately, we are now equipped with far higher quality information than was the case in 2020.  For example, we now understand that there is a highly seasonal effect on epidemic strength, given the winter surge in cases.  Yet even this raises numerous other questions:  Was it really seasonal, or a product of a peak period for social gatherings such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, other holiday celebrations — and even the Superbowl?  Or was it, perhaps, due to a relaxing or burn out of lockdown mentalities; or the introduction of novel mutations capable of faster transmission and more severe symptoms?

Likewise, was the subsequent dramatic downturn in cases, which we are fortunately currently experiencing at the local, national and global levels, the product of the end of the festive period; a result of changing federal policies as a result of regime change at the same time; changes in weather patterns; an early indicator of the power of vaccinations in some countries; or all of the above?  Were coughs, colds, influenza and other winter conditions to blame – or, in the absence of any notable flu epidemic in 2020-21, were other factors more important in the context of the ever-changing epidemic curve?

Other Lessons from 2020

We are equipped also, with many other lessons from 2020.  The Swedish experiment, which relied on normal societal functioning in the context of a highly-resourced health system – which, to be fair, at no point became overwhelmed – has been declared, by no less a personage than the King of Sweden himself, as a failure.  The Swedish death toll and mortality rate were tragically and conclusively higher than many countries of comparable wealth and global position, sometimes exponentially so.

We have also learned that without a doubt open borders and the free movement of people – along with other aspects of globalization, and despite its many positive elements – are public health nightmares.  The world’s only COVID-free nations are islands in the Pacific that rapidly closed their borders. Thus, the reasons for the current global pandemic can be reduced, very easily, to the free movement of infected persons across borders: we should not forget that, at least in part, national borders were first considered necessary, centuries ago, to stop the spread of disease associated in particular with the Middle Ages.  We have thus, perhaps, learned that globalization has its limits; the European Union has announced an emergency border system to prevent future outbreaks. In all cases, it is highly likely that certain basic health checks for travelers will remain permanently in place, just as added layers of travel security became permanent parts of our lives post-9/11.

The analogy, then, that best springs to mind when considering the path of the virus both in 2020 and over the coming months is that of a child with its hand in the cookie jar – once you take your eye off it, trouble will result.  Or, to put it another way, as Churchill said, “the price of peace is eternal vigilance.”  So far, so good, then, in terms of predicting the coming months: an easily-definable sine curve, in which (unless New Zealand-style isolationist policies are successfully pursued in tandem) the excitement of ‘opening up’ is swiftly and inevitably followed by surges in infection rates.  Yet one critical x-factor is now clearly in play:  vaccines.

The Vaccine X-Factor
Vaccine progress, despite global impatience with the roll-out, has been breathtakingly fast. Without cutting corners, numerous pharmaceutical companies and other research laboratories have triumphed, to develop and roll out vaccine formulae in less than a year.  However, many doubts remain:  how long will vaccines be effective?  How effective are they against variants?  And, crucially, do they protect against transmission as well as offering individual protection?  The answers to these three questions, for which we already have some early indications, will also help to determine how the coming months play out.

To date, the best evidence regarding vaccine effectiveness on transmissibility has come from Israel, which is significantly further ahead than many other countries in its vaccination efforts.  Based on the most recent reports, vaccines do indeed offer community, as well as individual protection, reducing infectiousness by as much as 94%.  Equally importantly, and more fundamentally, vaccines are working:  studies have shown that, without question, mortality rates have declined, along with infection rates, with few (if any) serious side effects.

Current information on vaccine effectiveness against variants is also positive, as well as vaccine duration fears being allayed by the development of a booster shot, if necessary.  These developments may significantly change the shape of the above-referenced sine curve (with perhaps the important qualification that one final spike’ may result from social overconfidence and risk-taking in the early stages of vaccine roll-out).  Put simply, science has now caught up with the virus, should further mutations or threats occur, scientists can now be safely relied upon to respond in a timely manner.  For now, at least, humanity has the upper hand. Even our logistics continue to lag when it comes to disseminating the cure to the global population.

The Threat of Anti-Vaxxers
Conversely, despite trends indicating decreases in anti-vaccine sentiment, this means that anti-vaccine campaigners, or other elements of society who refuse or fear vaccines, may become the key obstacle to normal societal and economic functioning in the months to come.  Much work, then, remains to be done in terms of vaccine policies, uptake, and awareness, as well as challenging anti-science sentiments: in most liberal western democracies, the right to turn down vaccines (as well as vaccine exemptions) is constitutionally enshrined.  Even the Vatican City, a quasi-autocracy, faced push-back against its mandatory vaccination policy; other religious leaders have recently made pro –vaccination statements to allay fear and resistance.  And vaccine identification cards have not yet been agreed-upon, though efforts such as the Vaccination Credential Initiative are attempting to address this.

National and international security aspects also come in to play, amidst reports that up to one-third of the United States’ armed forces personnel have refused the vaccine to date.  In this context, perhaps the only means available to organizations, governments and institutions is to closely examine, without coercion, why individuals reject vaccines – and attempt to educate on the negative consequences, both for in the individual and society, as quickly and effectively as possible.  The other avenue that remains open is creating policies that limit movements and activities of those who remain unvaccinated by choice, potentially exposing themselves and others to infection.

We also should not forget that there are those amongst us who cannot take vaccines, for health or allergy reasons. Such demographics – though currently unquantified, and likely to be small in proportion to those who can and should be vaccinated – are wholly dependent on their health and safety on uptake amongst those who can take vaccines.  It is to be hoped that the recent announcement of expanded personal freedoms for vaccinated individuals – though it remains to be seen how such policy can be monitored or enforced – will act as further impetus for broader vaccination acceptance.

Creating Our Own Future
Many experts resort to another throw-away quote, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” when asked to predict epidemic patterns.  However, a more prescient phrase might be one from Abraham Lincoln:  “The most reliable way to predict the future is to create it.”  What that means, in epidemic terms, is that our actions in the present will determine the future: the right choices, which might involve caution and patience now, as well as a proactive stance and top-down leadership, will result in positive dividends later – perhaps as soon as summer 2021.

In practical terms, then, what does this mean for personal and professional activities over the coming months?  Firstly, all activities with an epidemic focus will be valued by society – including references to epidemics in security, economic, and geostrategic realms.  Second, a pivot to a research focus, at least temporarily, for organizations previously active in other areas, but now constrained, may prove cost-effective.  This helps to avoid the ultimate, and un-answerable, health economics-bioethical dilemma faced by many organizations: what is the acceptable level or morbidity and mortality for society to continue with economic productivity?

Thirdly, regional outreach efforts, if possible, may effectively supplant centralized gatherings, vaccine and other travel circumstances permitting.  Fourth, a zoom-in on highlighting epidemic and vaccination activities will help justify the mission of many organizations who have had normal functioning suspended. Such achievements should be monitored, evaluated, and reported on to both justify funding and prevent furloughs.  Federal funding for all such activities will remain a top priority under the new administration.

In addition, continuing efforts to establish some form of control over epidemic-related social dynamics should continue to be pursued.  In 2021, we may be in a position, at last, in which we can feel a sense of controlling such dimensions of the virus, rather than the virus controlling us.  However, for many people, a long reintegration period will be necessary, for social, health, and professional dynamics.  Where possible, this process should begin with the availability of advisory and even counseling services for those reluctant to return to newly-acceptable levels of social functioning.

It’s All About Vaccines

Despite all these qualifications, one message should be clear: everything depends not just on vaccine effectiveness, but on supply and uptake.  This may lead to a scenario in which some countries with high vaccine uptake and coverage are able to return to more normal societal and economic functioning within a matter of months – albeit in a highly selective way, and subject to logistical constraints – even while other nations remain locked down.  Such welcome developments may be accompanied by further gains consequent on the introduction of even more efficient, user-friendly, and cost-effective rapid testing assays.

Though vaccine supply and logistical issues are likely to remain key constraints, we should not forget the exponential growth in face masks and other personal protective equipment during 2020.  Once manufacturing gears up to respond, we might also reasonably expect a dramatic and exponential growth in worldwide vaccine availability over the coming months.

In turn, this will play in to new travel dynamics: for those countries with high vaccine coverage (likely to include the USA; East Asia; Australia and New Zealand; Canada; the European Union; and the United Kingdom) ingress and egress on an international level, with appropriate testing, may well present no threat.  Likewise, ingress and egress to those countries with ongoing epidemics may well become possible for vaccinated international cohorts – albeit with likely greater travel complexity. Should both of these predictions come to pass, the outlook is highly optimistic, over the next six months, for many related activities – even before the critical 70% global vaccination threshold is gained; and despite the likely ongoing restrictions to airline routes.

Though currently controversial, the ascendancy of vaccine passports – in much the same way as traditional WHO vaccine cards are still enforced for entry in to many countries – will likely add further safety and mobility elements to our currently-restricted lives.  Whether this is in digital form, such as in China, or a ‘green pass’ as promulgated by the European Union, or as part of a broader national database I such as in Denmark, such efforts have sparked privacy concerns  – though these may be swiftly overcome by both reductions in quarantine demands and the economic benefits to the tourism and other sectors.

Testing results will also be included in such an initiative, such as is ready the case with Hawaii, and airlines such as Qantas have stated that they expect vaccination certificates to soon become essential pre-boarding evidence.  This further underlines the likely emerging social dichotomy between those who choose to exercise their right not be vaccinated – versus those who accept vaccinations and exercise their right to freedom of movement.  It seems impossible, at this stage, to reconcile these two fundamental rights.

Conclusion:  A New Era
We should also accept that the new-look, quasi-recovered world will never be the same as the old one.  For one thing, there are many benefits that we have gained: elimination of many commutes; improved delivery and supply chains; reductions in environmental damage; better use of virtual environments; hybrid and hyflex learning systems that open up education to a much wider audience than before; and other efficiency gains.  So – while we should of course aim for a resumption of as many of our non-destructive prior activities as possible, these will be irreconcilably and inexorably different, on fundamental levels – but not necessarily in malign ways – from our lives in 2019.

Finally, a word should be said about other potential future epidemics.  Just as in World Wars I and II, even devastation cannot get key messages through to humanity the first time around.  Though it is not impossible, we have no guarantees that such pandemics are only ‘100 year’ events – a false sense of security created by the alignment of dates with the post-World War I influenza pandemic.  If we do not learn from the events of 2020 and 2021, particularly regarding our international health and travel protocols, we will be walking right back down the same dark road from which we are just now emerging.

* Drs. Kevany and Canyon are professors at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government. March 2021

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Date: 2021/03/25

Strategic Competition, Cooperation, and Accommodation: Perspectives from the Indian Ocean Region

By Saira Yamin, Daniel Cedillo, Nicholas Sikes, Srini Sitaraman, Keith Wilkins*

This article draws on conversations facilitated at the virtual Indian Ocean Region Workshop convened by the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, Hawaii, in partnership with its sister security studies center, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA) in Washington D.C.  The workshop occurred over three consecutive days from Dec. 7 – 9, 2020.[1] Over 90 participants from 14 nations participated in the deliberations focusing on two key objectives: (i) Define the diverse perspectives on strategic competition and its effects on the Indian Ocean Region, and (ii) Explore opportunities for cooperation between partners, allies, and the United States (U.S.).  Aligned with the DKI APCSS mission to “educate, connect and empower,” the workshop created soft academic space for an inclusive, transparent, and mutually respectful dialogue in an otherwise restrictive pandemic environment. Regional security practitioners and influencers, including DKI APCSS alumni, led the dialogue by providing a rich diversity of perspectives and opinions on strategic competition, emerging flashpoints, and its effects.  Opportunities for cooperation were viewed from both a regional and an extra-regional perspective, which is how the U.S. was classified by most international participants.  Connecting civilians, scholars, researchers, and military officials from many countries to contribute regional perspectives and listen to security challenges helped build a shared understanding. This provided the foundation for security practitioners to traverse and transcend national and sub-regional boundaries in the collective pursuit of regional security objectives.   In keeping with the DKI APCSS non-attribution policy, names of individuals and countries have been withheld.


Context: Intensifying Strategic Competition between the United States and China
Strategic Competition between the U.S. and China has been looming in the distance and has finally come to the forefront of global conversation, strategy, and policy. The competition is intensifying in the Indian Ocean Region. This vast and open region bookends Bahrain to Djibouti to Diego Garcia to Singapore. The sea lanes of the Indian Ocean play a significant role in the transit of commercial and energy traffic. The lanes interlink the strategically important Suez Canal with another strategically critical channel–the Malacca Straits. China has realized the vital importance of the sea – and its ambitions can often be summed up by Alfred Mahan’s sea power theory “whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia.” Seemingly China is vying to expand its influence in the region without having to fight a war with its competitors. For China, the Global War on Terror waged by the U.S. was invaluable as it allowed for at least a decade and a half of uninterrupted political and economic growth. It provided China the time it needed to build itself into the power it is today.  Undoubtedly, China seeks global leadership and is steadily working to create a new global order defined by its own set of rules, norms, and values.  Innovation in technology and the “4th Industrial Revolution” have only strengthened China’s position and further fueled the fires of strategic competition with the U.S.  The fight between these Great Powers is expected to move beyond the kinetic in pursuit of warfare by other means.   The new “fight” will be waged on the battlefields of maritime, cyberspace, information, space, and economic competition.

With this backdrop, the article highlights the diversity of perspectives on strategic competition and opportunities for cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region drawing on discussions at the three-day virtual workshop organized by DKI APCSS.

Workshop Highlights

Objective 1: Diverse Perspectives on Strategic competition and its effects in the Indian Ocean Region

A Complex Landscape: Many Players and Many Layers
U.S.-China strategic competition in the Indian Ocean Region may be viewed through multiple lenses: (i) the quest for greater power projection and strategic access, (ii) the drive for stronger maritime and littoral footprints, and (iii) economic development, encompassing both trade and investments.  It is worth noting, however, that many Indo-Pacific nations believe the U.S.-China strategic competition is neither the defining feature nor the most accurate prism for understanding the complexity of the regional security environment. Many players and layers need to be taken into account to understand the big picture.

Considering the whole expanse of the region, the waters around the Western Indian Ocean are getting very crowded. There is a coastal infrastructure boom in the East African coastline provoking a Great Power Competition for basing and resource control in the region. Extra-regional and regional powers including Russia, China, United States, France, and India are jostling for space in the ocean. Additionally, the crisis in the Middle-East is drawing multiple state and non-state actors into the region.  The maritime security of littoral states is of growing importance as they seek to secure lucrative energy resources and secure its passage.   Other intersecting regional power competitions and active territorial and water conflicts involving states such as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Myanmar are also in play. Collectively all of this has led to an arms race in the Indian Ocean Region. The states have started expanding their naval capacity by accelerating ship-building and purchasing battleships, helicopters, radar systems, and submarines. For instance, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy is developing a naval expeditionary force and India is considering the purchase of a third aircraft carrier.  China was once India’s greatest trading partner, but due to competing agendas along their borders, the China-India partnership is at the crossroads. Middle powers play an important role, including balancing between India and China, the U.S. and China, and other regional competitors.

The factor that is sometimes lost during these challenges is the smaller state perspectives, critical to what is best for the region.  Large regional and extra-regional countries need to recognize the significant geostrategic importance of smaller, littoral nations.  For most countries in the region, particularly the smaller developing states, economic interests precede strategic needs (see Figure 1 representing workshop discussions).   For many of these small and middle powers, non-traditional threats to security, including climate change, natural disasters, environmental degradation, and transnational threats such as terrorism and violent extremism, piracy, Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported Fishing (IUUF), human and drug trafficking are high on national priorities​.

Figure 1: Zones of Strategic Competition in the Indian Ocean Region


Choices and Opportunities for Growth for Small and Middle Powers
For some states in the Indian Ocean Region, the evolving Great Power Competition provides new opportunities for growth and expansion. It gives choices not previously offered to some of the smaller and middle powers. Often, the U.S. is perceived as an “extra” regional power, and some countries are hesitant to fully engage with it at the cost of alienating China. Importantly, they don’t want to be entangled in Great Power politics and would prefer to maintain good relations with both. They do not favor having to choose one over the other. It is in their interest to continue developing with assistance from multiple regional and extra-regional powers.  The smaller regional countries must also balance the relationships they have with China, the U.S., India, and others. They desire friendly relations with many of these countries simultaneously but are sometimes constrained by geographic proximity, capacity, historical and political factors, or economic dependence on China.  Some smaller littoral states find they are thriving in an environment shaped by Great Power Competition as it gives them greater leverage to negotiate their choices.

The most overwhelming viewpoint offered by participants was that of choice. The countries in the Indian Ocean Region want options. China, the main contributor in the area, has focused its attention on expanding its supply and logistics. This has brought infrastructure and capital growth into the region. These growth opportunities come with a China price tag that some countries may or may not be willing to pay. Increased U.S. presence in the region and the added option to work with the U.S. and allies allow countries to bargain from a position of strength. It will enable countries in the region to choose who they work with and in what areas. When it comes to economic prosperity, some countries will choose the U.S., and some will choose China, but most will choose both. These new economic growth opportunities will naturally foster new avenues to build and re-build partnerships in the Indian Ocean Region

Economic Development and Cooperation: China’s Principal Strategic Tool
China’s long-run objective is to protect and control resources. Economic development is the key, and economic cooperation is the vehicle for China’s rapid progress and the principal strategic tool.  It uses economic incentives to attract countries to gain effective and increased control of fisheries, gas, energy, and sea lanes of communications to strengthen its position in the region.  Its soft power, extended through economic and infrastructure development and more recently through COVID diplomacy, has been instrumental in expanding its influence.  Several workshop participants voiced that an absence of investment from the West has created a vacuum that China has sought to fill through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  The BRI supports China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean Region through debt funding of some of the littoral states’ infrastructure needs.  It has been one of the primary leverage points for China’s strategy while also enabling India’s encirclement. Large scale signature capital projects and Mandarin language courses, for example, are ways how China has stepped in to strengthen its ties with Indian Ocean littoral states. U.S. capital and economic investments are deemed necessary to improve its footprint and strengthen partnerships in the region.

Workshop Highlights

Objective 2: Opportunities for cooperation in an environment of strategic competition

Small, Middle and Large Powers: Shifting Alliances and Opportunities for Cooperation
As elucidated above, the global focus on the Indo-Pacific has led to new opportunities for cooperation.  During this period of emerging transformation, old partnerships will fade, and new ones will emerge. Small, middle, and great powers, both regional and extra-regional, should seize the opportunity to build partnerships based on shared interests, deepen their cooperation, and strengthen a rules-based order protecting and benefiting themselves and the global community.  It is important to note that these opportunities to cooperate will allow small and middle powers to take a more relevant and active role in the future of the Indian Ocean Region.

While some states maintain a non-alignment policy, they should all continue to strengthen relationships in the region.  Multilateral engagements provide an opportunity for collaboration without the appearance of choosing sides. Workshop participants overwhelmingly advocated for multilateral approaches in lieu of the series of bilateral agreements currently in place. A multilateral system provides for strategic ambiguity and allows nations to maintain a non-aligned posture. Multilateral organizations offer several opportunities to collaborate, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, transnational crime, climate change, economic development, technology transfer, and research and development. One or more of these offer opportunities to build the foundations of multilateral cooperation in an environment of strategic competition between Great Powers.

To demonstrate that competition can potentially generate opportunities for more inclusive and optimal solutions, it is important to create forums for dialogue with China. Consider the immensely productive possibility of a globally coordinated response to COVID-19 and vaccine diplomacy. Such cooperation would be a win-win for all. It would help strengthen ties in the region and act as a catalyst for cooperation in the new era of Great Power Competition.  Modeling transparency in lessons learned and coordinating a global vaccine distribution plan could help the world come together to combat the pandemic, turning a monumental crisis into a historic opportunity to collaborate. Removing politics from scientific cooperation is of the essence. Actions like this will reduce mistrust and eventually help to build greater trust and confidence. Multilateral platforms and regional organizations, both existing and new, could help with confidence building exercises in the region.

Strategic Competition, Cooperation, and Accommodation
While participants from the region vehemently advocated for opportunities to deepen cooperation and identify common interests for multilateral engagement, they suggested veering the Great Power dynamics from strategic competition to accommodation. This view offers the opportunity for the U.S. and China to listen to the region and generate collaborative solutions.  Such cooperation, however, is contingent on building trust, or at the very least reducing mistrust. It is also conditional on open dialogue between strategic competitors, the Great Powers. Importantly it is an opportunity for the U.S. to reframe its leadership by supporting ongoing regional efforts and filling in the gaps where possible.  Given that the U.S. is an extra-regional power, a stance that supports regional initiatives and is willing to accommodate China offers an opportunity to fit in quite well.  The model is not an entirely new one.  A number of countries are actively engage in “multi-directional balancing” or “cross-alignment” to accommodate various players competing for influence in the region.  A number of areas were identified as offering the space for strategic accommodation between the U.S. and China.  Those generated in one of the small group discussions at the workshop are given in Figure 2 below. They include economic cooperation, technological cooperation, climate change, and humanitarian assistance in disaster response along with shared maritime domain awareness.

Figure 2: Areas of Strategic Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region

 Workshop participants also discussed infrastructure development assistance by the U.S. and its allies for increased Indo-Pacific connectivity to supplement and compliment BRI projects.  Additionally, participants considered drawing together all efforts of the European Union and the QUAD nations (Japan, India, the U.S., and Australia) to support the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) infrastructure strategies as the healthy, transparent alternative​ to the BRI.  Attendees viewed foreign direct investment in the region as having immense potential to build the confidence of small, middle and rising powers in the region.

Technology has long been both the driver and vector for competition in the Indian Ocean Region. Several participants noted that with the coming of the 4th Industrial Revolution, 5G, artificial intelligence, and many more technological updates, the need for clean technology will become essential to national sovereignty. It was identified as a rapidly emerging area for cooperation. They noted that currently, Huawei Technologies is the one of the few providers, and generally the most cost-effective one, of information and communications technology (ICT) to the Indian Ocean Region. While many nations are wary of entering deals with what they termed “dirty technology,” given a noted absence or vast cost difference in alternatives, they fear they will get technologically even further behind if they do not choose what is available to them in the near future.

Another popular area cited for possible cooperation was that of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) information sharing as part of Information Fusion Centers.  Representatives believed MDA knowledge by regional nations would assist in maintaining the rule of law, international norms, and support a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.  Indian Ocean states are keen on economic development opportunities but they must be within the rule of law, international norms, and good governance.  Impacts to the global economy from challenges and threats such as climate change and Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF) directly impact the Indian Ocean Region and beyond.  Successful strategic coordination to combat IUUF will have a direct impact on climate change.  These are important linkages in considering opportunities to transform an environment of strategic competition to that of strategic cooperation and accommodation between Great Powers.


Intensifying strategic competition in the Indian Ocean Region offers new strategic opportunities.  It is a moment of global transition.  U.S. policy requires nuance and balance in response to China’s rise as a competitor. Perspectives from the region elicited at the virtual workshop highlighted the complexity of the security landscape.  Great power interests are diverse and conflicting yet there is also opportunity to build common ground.  The region features a web of multi-faceted relationships between small, medium and Great Powers confronting a broad spectrum of traditional and non-traditional security threats.  Looking beyond the prism of Great Power Competition, these sub-regional dynamics need to be better understood to maximize the gains for stakeholders.  Underlying national interests, particularly those of smaller and middle powers, are frequently overlooked. Economic development is often high on the list of national priorities in the region and when it comes to pursuing options for growth and prosperity, littoral states want what is best for them. While the cost of deepening economic relationship with China may come with high political and security costs, and long-term economic consequences, littoral states seemingly overlook them in favor of short-term gains.  The U.S. could demonstrate greater leadership by truly listening to what the region wants and continue to push for and be receptive to open dialogue with China. Opening up channels of communication and sustained engagement is imperative

As old alliances shift and new partnerships evolve, Indian Ocean countries would like to balance their relations with both China and the U.S.  Choosing one over the other at the cost of alienating either is neither desirable, practicable, nor necessary.  Going forward, the creation of multilateral frameworks could carve the space for cooperation.  Great Powers, on their part, should consider shifting the dynamics of competition to accommodation. The change in the U.S. administration may generate new possibilities for such cooperation with China. Their relationship with littoral states could be mutually complementary.  Such a shift, however, is dependent on reducing mistrust and reframing policy to accommodate regional priorities.  Soft issues such as health security, environment and climate change, and economic cooperation are critically important for littoral states and offer the greatest space for win-win outcomes.  Some of these strategic points of intervention could help build the foundations for multilateral cooperation between Great Powers. Ultimately, strategic competition benefit everyone when it helps build regional and international stability, security, and resilience.

*All authors are professors at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

The workshop leadership team included DKI APCSS Professors Wade Turvold, Captain, U.S. Navy (ret) and Captain Kimberly B. McCann, U.S. Navy.

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Date: 2021/03/23

Time for the Pacific Islands Forum to Step-Back and Heal

By Deon Canyon  *

Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa founded the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) as the South Pacific Forum in 1971 and it has come to be considered the primary agency for regionalism in Oceania (Fig 1). Up until recently, its membership comprised the 14 sovereign United Nations member states (Australia, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu); the 2 non-sovereign territories (French Polynesia and New Caledonia); and the 2 sovereign non-UN member states in association with New Zealand (Cook Islands and Niue).

Twenty years later, in 1992, PIF held a summit for Smaller Island State Leaders from Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu in recognition of their vulnerabilities, due to small size and lack of natural resources, and long-term sustainable development needs.

Thirty years later, in 2021, the small island states that make up Micronesia were crushed when the “long-standing convention – known as the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ – the leadership of the Pacific Islands Forum cycles through the three major sub-regions across the Pacific: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia” was abrogated when former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna was elected in Feb 2021 ahead of Marshall Islands Ambassador to the UN, Gerald Zackios.

As a result, the Micronesian states (Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands), decided to disassociate themselves from PIF due to a failure of the PIF member nations to honor traditional agreements on PIF leadership.

However, while there may have been a recent gentlemen’s agreement, there is no long-standing convention for leadership rotation as can be seen in Box 1.

Box 1: Changes of leadership since the beginning of PIF

1971 South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation (SPEC)
  •  1972-1980 Tonga: Mahe Tupouniua
  •  1981-1982 Papua New Guinea: Gabriel Gris (died in office)
  •  1982-1983 Australia: John Sheppard (acting)
  •  1983-1986 Tonga: Mahe Tupouniua
  •  1986-1988 Tuvalu: Henry Naisali
1988 South Pacific Forum Secretariat (SPFS)
  • 1988-1992 Tuvalu: Henry Naisali
  • 1992-1998 Kiribati: Ieremia Tabai
  • 1998-1999 Papua New Guinea: Noel Levi
1999 Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)
  • 1999-2004 Papua New Guinea: Noel Levi
  • 2004-2008 Australia: Greg Urwin
  • 2008-2008 Tuvalu: Feleti Teo (acting)
  • 2008-2014 Samoa: Tuiloma Neroni Slade
  • 2015-2018 Papua New Guinea: Dame Meg Taylor
  • 2018-2021 Papua New Guinea: Dame Meg Taylor

(Fig 2)

Power sharing since 1971 has not been consistently shared (Fig 2) between the cultural regions of the Pacific or between nations in those regions. It has heavily favored 3 Polynesian nations (Tonga, Tuvalu, and Samoa) followed by 1 Melanesian nation (Papua New Guinea).

Figure 2: Sharing of the PIF chair between the four ethnic sub-regions in Oceania

Neither has the chair position been consistently rotated between the cultural sub-regions at any time in the organization’s history (Fig 3).

Figure 3: Rotation of the PIF chair through the four ethnic sub-regions in Oceania.

PIF’s vision is for “a region of peace, harmony, security, social inclusion and prosperity, so that all Pacific people can lead free, healthy, and productive lives.” However, PIF’s failure to practice equitable inclusion is not the Pacific Way and does not result in harmony. If the Pacific Islands Forum truly considers itself representative of all the Pacific Island states, it should consider the following recommendations.

Recommendations for resolution

  1. An agreement was perceived to have been made and broken, thus details surrounding the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” for chair rotation must be made transparent and public
  2. Systematically rotate the chair around the sub-regions as per the “Gentlemen’s Agreement”
  3. Put a stop to awarding double-term chair periods, which only serve to favor select nations
  4. When it comes to a sub-region’s turn, the Chair should rotate around the nations in each sub-region instead of skipping many nations in preference of a few – even the ASEAN chair rotates to all of its constituent nations
  5. The PIF chair period could be shortened to one year to make it more symbolic and to enable many more nations to participate and guide PIF in a significant way
  6. Now that PIF has been functioning well for a long time, it is an opportune moment to
    consider membership options that would expand and enhance the voice of smaller Pacific Islands states

Micronesia’s planned withdrawal from PIF is a defining moment in Pacific history. PIF’s loss of an entire sub-region constitutes an incredible set-back for regional identity, regional security, and detracts significantly from the PIF’s Blue Pacific Continent concept. Since the Blue Pacific has not produced any substantial benefits yet, there is no significant downside for Micronesia, only for PIF and its agenda to promote regionalism.

If the PIF does not wish to return to its former designation of South Pacific Forum, now is the time for it to urgently take advantage of the opportunity to remake the forum into a vehicle that better represents all Pacific Islanders and nations. Carrying on without Micronesia would be a grave error that will continue to undermine Pacific regionalism well into the future.

* Dr. Canyon is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS) in Honolulu, USA.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

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Date: 2021/02/25

Is the Pacific Triad (Australia, New Zealand and France) undermining US influence in the Pacific?

By Francis Hualupmomi, Ph.D.
Public Servant — Papua New Guinea*

There is an immediate concern that the Pacific region will face a major challenge in managing geopolitical dynamics as Micronesia withdraws from the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

The Pacific region was stable before and after the end of World War II, but recent events relating to the PIF suggest that all is not well. The Micronesian group of island countries (Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and the Federated States of Micronesia) has withdrawn from PIF after its candidate failed to win the position of Secretary-General. The position of Secretary-General of PIF supposedly rotates among the three sub-regions, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia, as a tradition. As Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) term ended, there was thus a collective understanding that Micronesia would assume the position, as Polynesia held the position before PNG. The outcome of the election of the Secretary-General was thus unexpected and extremely divisive.

It is apparent that the pull-out was expected, as the signal was given earlier on. In the 2019 PIF Meeting, Micronesia announced its candidate, Gerald Zackios, and argued that he must be given the opportunity to lead PIF as a Pacific way of honouring unwritten conventions and agreements. However, in the election of PIF Secretary-General, Polynesia’s candidate from the Cook Islands was appointed, which did not go down well with Micronesia. This outcome, in turn, triggered Palau and others to collectively withdraw their membership through a signed communique.

From a geopolitical point of view, Australia and New Zealand may have influenced the election to reduce Chinese influence in the Pacific. The deepening influence of China in Small Pacific Island Countries (SPIC) is an indisputable concern for Australian policy-makers and its intelligence community, who have been trying to contain Chinese influence through their ‘Step Up’ foreign policy. However, Palau president Surangel Whipps Jr said that if Australia and New Zealand had not thrown their weight around and voted for a Polynesian candidate, this problem would not exist. In the meantime, Australia is in damage control and states that it will work closely with Micronesia and members of PIF to resolve this matter amicably.

Given the fact that the Pacific region is an important geo-strategic theatre where WWII was fought, and current competitors vie for geo-economic interests and strategic assets, such as huge deposits of petroleum, minerals and fisheries, competition over controlling the ocean is inevitable. This is evident in the increasing foreign aid and investment in the region through soft power diplomacy. For instance, between 2011 and 2017, Australia spent 96 percent of its total development aid to the Pacific region as promised compared to China who spent 20 percent of its total development aid – Australia is still leading in foreign aid to the region. Certainly, Australia would not concede to China’s pursuit.

Australia’s framing of the Pacific as its backyard, sets up a natural tension with any new Pacific player, and especially China. From a Pacific Islands perspective, this monopolistic stance is quite harmful to SPICs because it limits their development and international relations, and restricts their progress in terms of finding the most competitive markets for their natural resources.

New Zealand also influenced the appointment of the Secretary- General given the fact that Cook Islands is her free association state. Like Australia, New Zealand is concerned with limiting Chinese influence in the Pacific. New Zealand rejected Micronesia’s claims and called for collaboration in this matter.

Australia and New Zealand through their Pacific ‘Step-Up’ and ‘Reset’ foreign policies have clearly framed the Pacific as their sphere of influence where they intend to have more control and influence. Both countries have already curved the lines of control – Australia over Melanesia and New Zealand over Polynesia. In collaboration with France, which controls five Polynesian groups of island countries, these colonialist Pacific powers have prevented Micronesia from holding PIF leadership, but to what end? Since the US, not China, has the majority of influence in Micronesia, this Triad has effectively disturbed an integrated pacific, and side-lined US influence in the region. Their long-term vision can only be to extend their influence over all Pacific Islands and eventually bring Micronesia into their yard.

Papua New Guinea, representing Melanesia, on the other hand, supported Micronesia and maintains that decisions of the PIF must be consensus-based, much like ASEAN. Voting has not been encouraged as argued by former PNG Prime Minister, Hon. Peter O’Neill.

However, the Triad’s plan to limit Micronesian and thus US influence has backfired with their departure from PIF. Further, this forced regional disintegration has created a vacuum for Chinese influence. Pacific regionalism has rarely been tested, and it is highly unlikely that the problem will be solved in a Pacific Way unless Australia and New Zealand adopt a more “hands off” approach to PIF.

In conclusion, the recent decision by the Micronesian nations has aptly demonstrated that the region is incrementally heading into unstable waters as geopolitical tensions rise. Australia’s framing of the Pacific as its backyard has led to an unwanted outcome. Stability within PIF is important and member countries must have the freedom to settle disputes in the true spirit of the Pacific Way.

* Dr. Hualupmomi a political and policy analyst and strategist in the areas of geopolitics, intervention; energy security; energy governance; resource governance; and strategic policy. He holds a BA and BA Honours in Political Science (UPNG), Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Policy Management (Melbourne University, Aus.), Masters in International Politics (Jilin University, China), and Ph.D. in Public Policy (Victoria University of Wellington, NZ).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of his organization, DKI APCSS or the United States Government.
February 2021

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Date: 2021/02/19

The Global Islamist Extremist Threat: Still Significant in 2021

By Kumar Ramakrishna [*]


Violent Islamist extremism remained the most potent terrorist threat to global stability in 2020 and will remain so in 2021. Six trends were observed the past year: the continuing salience of lone actors; the involvement of women and family networks in combatant roles; the challenge of rehabilitating and reintegrating returning foreign fighters and their families; the role of diasporas; the diversity of terror financing mechanism and ideological ecosystems propagating violent Islamist perspectives. Going forward, while a range of customized short-term counter-terrorist kinetic and coercive measures remain important to deal with the evolving physical threat of violent Islamist extremism, these should be complemented by softer medium to longer-term counter-terrorism approaches, to deal with the underlying political, socioeconomic and ideological factors that generate the threat in the first place. Importantly, a more granular understanding of the ideological ecosystems that propagate the Islamist extremism that sustain terrorist and support networks, would be salutary.

The year 2020 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of January 26, 2021, with more than 100 million cases and over two million deaths worldwide, the struggle against COVID-19 is likely the defining struggle of this generation. Against this backdrop – despite the alarming rise of extremist violence, as exemplified by the January 6, 2021 mob assault on the US Capitol building in an ultimately futile attempt to prevent Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden’s November 2020 victory over Republican Donald Trump – the strategic challenge of countering and preventing transnational Islamist terrorism and extremism is likely to remain the most potent terrorist threat to global stability in the new year.  Despite the military demise of its so-called territorial caliphate carved out of Iraq and Syria in March 2019, the Islamic State (IS) managed to remain resilient and active both on the ground and online.

IS has re-envisioned the caliphate as an overarching global state rather than one territorially confined to Iraq and Syria. It reframed the inclement strategic situation it faced in 2020 as a “protracted resistance” strategy and its military setbacks as temporary. As far as the estranged ideological cousin of IS, Al-Qaeda was concerned, the year proved particularly traumatic, given the loss of several senior leaders. Rather than tight strategic control, both IS and Al-Qaeda sought through social media to provide a broad strategic narrative to guide the actions of a widely scattered global network of affiliates. This narrative remained centered on three core themes, adapted to diverse local contexts worldwide: armed struggle to establish the caliphate; hatred of the non-Muslim Other and the End Times.

Six Global Islamist Extremist Trends Likely to Persist in 2021

Globally, the violent Islamist threat was characterized by six broad trends in 2020, which are likely to persist this year.

First, the threat of attackby lone actors inspired if not necessarily directed by IS, Al Qaeda or their affiliates online, remained pertinent.  In Indonesia, “stabbings were the most preferred tactic, followed by shootings and bombings” by both “pro-IS groups” and “individuals in Indonesia”, reflecting a “continued preference to execute attacks that require little training, planning or funds”. A second trend was the increasing involvement of women, youth and family networks in active combatant rather than simply support roles.  In October 2020, a young Indonesian woman was arrested in Jolo island in the southern Philippines for involvement in a suicide bombing plot. She was later identified as the widow of a slain Indonesian terrorist. She was also the daughter of an Indonesian husband-and-wife suicide attack team that had bombed a church, also in Jolo, in January 2019, killing at least 23 civilians.

A third trend was the challenge of dealing with returning foreign fighters and their families humanely without compromising national security.  For example, it was reported that more than 50 Malaysians could be returning home from Syria, prompting discussions about how to properly rehabilitate and reintegrate them, as some returnees were “expected to include battle-hardened jihadists”. In Central Asia, owing to the global pandemic, repatriation of nationals from Syria slowed down significantly in 2020. Authorities there acknowledged that “transforming the extreme beliefs of some ideologically hardened repatriates has been notoriously slow”. The Maldives, which contributed the greatest number of IS fighters per capita to the Syrian civil war, recognized that its “returning terrorist fighters could pose a grave internal threat” in the near future.

     The role of diasporas was a fourth notable trend.  At least 1.1 million Rohingyas refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar remain in Bangladeshi camps, vulnerable to exploitation by both criminal and terror networks – like the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). ARSA has been exploiting social media to amass support from Rohingya refugees in the region. Meanwhile, at least 18 radicalisation cases within the Bangladeshi diaspora overseas were detected in 2020, of which 16 were in Singapore and two in the U.S. Furthermore, Central Asians in Russia and elsewhere continued to be targeted by online jihadi propaganda for recruitment, while elements of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey reportedly provided funding to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) terrorist network in Syria.


 The diversity of terror financing mechanisms globally was a fifth trend. In Bangladesh, the proscribed Allahr Dal extremist network received funding from supporters who provided a percentage of their monthly income to the group.  The Central Asian Katibat Imam Al-Bukhari network meanwhile employed the hawala system to transfer funds, while other Central Asians engaged in robberies and even murder-for-hire operations.  The Uyghur-based TIP terrorist network in Syria reportedly secured funds by plundering and selling public utilities equipment. While supporters of the resurgent Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network in Indonesia donated 5-10 percent of their monthly salary to the network, JI has also developed legitimate businesses.

Sixth, the role of ideological ecosystems propagating violent Islamist narratives stood out. Such ecosystems included interconnected networks of social media platforms, online magazines, charismatic influencers and certain organizational, educational and religious spaces. For instance in India in October, IS published a new monthly propaganda magazine, Sawt al-Hind (Voice of India), while Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) rebranded its monthly magazine as Nawa-i-Ghazwat al Hind (Conquest of India).  In Pakistan, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) used its “propaganda magazine Mujallah Taliban to articulate its ideological position”. In Bangladesh, the Al Qaeda-linked Ansar-al-Islam (AAI) promoted the Ghazwatul Hind narrative or the eschatological last victorious battle of the Indian subcontinent. AAI also promoted extremist propaganda through Facebook, Messenger and Whatsapp. In Indonesia, some members of the pro-IS groups Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) and Jamaah Ansharul Khilafah (JAK), “continued to conduct closed-door sessions for the purpose of ideologically indoctrinating followers”.

Impact of COVID-19

The impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the violent Islamist threat landscape in 2020 was felt both ideologically and operationally. Ideologically, Islamist extremists exploited the pandemic to declare that the End Times and, hence ultimate victory, were nigh. Operationally, the pandemic impacted both security forces and terrorist networks alike. Security forces had to apportion limited resources between operations to enforce physical lockdowns and ongoing actions against terrorist networks.  However, the imposition of border controls and lockdowns also reduced terrorist operating space. Cross-border movement was generally tightened, while domestic lockdowns prevented the face-to-face meetings that facilitated radicalisation of new recruits. Conversely, lockdowns also compelled vulnerable individuals to spend more time online, facilitating even more opportunities for exposure to violent extremist content.  Given the continuing challenge facing governments and societies on the constantly evolving pandemic front, it is likely that such trends will persist this new year.

Going forward, it seems clear that while a range of customized short-term counter-terrorist kinetic and coercive measures remain important to deal with the evolving physical threat of violent Islamist extremism, these should be complemented by softer medium to longer-term counter-terrorism approaches, to deal with the underlying political, socioeconomic and ideological factors that generate the threat in the first place. Particularly important, a more granular understanding of the ideological ecosystems that propagate the Islamist extremism that sustain terrorist and support networks, would be salutary. As suggested, a considerable diversity and combination of ideological transmission “nodes” exist, ranging from Net-savvy charismatic individual influencers and organizations, to online publications and social media platforms, to physical closed-door study sessions – a list that is by no means comprehensive. It would be important to perhaps map out how the nodes of these Islamist extremist ideological ecosystems interconnect, not just within but across regions.

 The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

February 2021

 [*] Kumar Ramakrishna is Associate Dean for Policy Studies, Head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and Research Adviser to the National Security Studies Programme, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

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Date: 2021/02/12

Recommendations from Papua New Guinea on How to Improve U.S. Posture in the Pacific

By Deon Canyon[1]
Michael Kabuni[2]

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a strategic asset in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical map and will continue to be used by Beijing, Washington, and Canberra until it picks a side, and probably even beyond that. The key reasons underlying the pursuit of PNG relate to gaining economic advantage and hegemonic dominance. PNG rightly expects that Washington, together with Canberra, would give as much ‘carrot’ as possible to Port Moresby rather than ‘stick’ for fear of losing an important ally to Beijing. Beijing is expected to apply the same amount of caution in preserving its positive external relations with PNG. All these states want to be seen to be relevant and justified in their exercise of influence, power and dominance.

While neutrality is often associated with people who are confused about the uncertain future and a lack of principles, Papua New Guineans believe it is a viable course of action. When applying game theory, a cooperative and neutral approach is most likely in a time of peace because it can be used to obtain maximum advantage from each actor. However, although PNG can gain favorable economic advantage from this game play, it comes with certain costs, including a hollowing out of PNG’s sovereignty, and an accumulation of crippling external debt over the long run. This makes PNG increasingly economically weak and dependent, which makes it more vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation by influential actors. That said, PNG is already capitalizing on its weaknesses by maximizing the opportunities presented by both sides of the divide as it applies smart strategies, such as band-wagoning or free-riding, at the expense of great power rivalry in the region.

The U.S. refocus on the Pacific is a welcome development given that it has not looked much further beyond American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas for a long time. The Blue Pacific Act, sponsored on the floor of the U.S. Senate is also welcomed, but many believe it carries similar narratives presented in Obama’s 2011-2012 Pivot/Rebalance to the Pacific, which did not amount to much at all. It is certainly a notable step in the right direction, but it will fail to result in much and become rhetoric like the Rebalance if it is not diligently implemented.

Some fairly explicit recommendations for how the U.S. can improve its posture in PNG were made by several political thinkers who contributed to this paper.

  1. Strengthen diplomatic relations with PNG to create partnerships and actions at various levels all the way from grassroots to government. Specifically, compliment the current top-down approach with bottom-up approaches designed to establish a strong local presence on the ground and reorient public support away from China.
  2. Directly channel development aid for human resources, technical support, infrastructure, etc. to local NGOs & companies via cooperative partnerships.
  3. Relax the stringent screening and vetting process involved in awarding contracts to local NGOs and local companies who want to partner, in terms of service delivery, to roll out projects.
  4. Learn from the well-received multilateral effort to power up 70% of PNG in the years leading up to 2030 with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and explore other multilateral cooperative projects – even with China.
  5. Provide more U.S. scholarships to named Pacific Island countries without amalgamating them into one package. China provides at least 30 undergraduate and three graduate scholarships annually, but most PNG students would prefer a U.S. education. However, U.S. undergraduate scholarships are limited to 1 or 2, and graduate scholarships like Humphrey Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and USSP scholarship are limited to 1-3 seats. All have stringent screening and vetting requirements that are difficult to meet, whereas the road to China is easier to travel. Often PNG citizens do not even get a chance to compete for U.S. seats as preference goes to other Pacific Island nations.
  6. Australia’s actions and attitudes caused PNG to turn to China, so the U.S. will gain more traction if it focuses on bilateral relations with PNG rather on multilaterally relations.
  7. Develop a stronger, more engaging relationship with the PNG military and assist PNG to increase its naval presence.
  8. Make it obvious that PNG has more to benefit from an alliance or partnership with the U.S.
  9. “Security and Cooperation” (in the Blue Pacific Act ) is one of the most important elements in U.S.-PNG diplomatic relations which must continue to evolve and diversify over time and space
  10. The rotational deployment of U.S. Marines from the 101st Marine Expeditionary Units in Darwin, Australia is a good first step, but more military action in PNG is needed to actively deter China’s “Silk-Belt-Road” initiative.
  11. When the U.S. withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in favor of a Comprehensive Economic Trans-Pacific Partnership, nothing happened. The U.S. needs to be clear and focused on the need to have a proactive approach to economic development in PNG with more action and less rhetoric.
  12. Focus on budgetary aid and align funding with development projects. Many sectors, such as the Health sector, require a multi-sectorial budget approach so that all sector agencies get a fair and equal share of funding.
  13. The US-NZ-AU-JP funding of electricity to cover 70% of PNG by 2030 is by far the most relevant intervention as it will improve lives and will not be seen as something done for immediate gain, such as the Manus Naval base or Refugee Processing Centre. The struggle for popularity and relevance in PNG will be won on infrastructure, but only infrastructure that makes a long-term developmental difference to the people.
  14. The U.S. is like that third cousin that you never see. Establish closer ties with PNG at all levels by making a difference to the lives of the population with action, not rhetoric.
  15. Be recognized in the Pacific as a just power by reducing support for Indonesia and assisting West Papua to become independent.
  16. Support the call by West Papuans for a legitimate second referendum.

PNG fully expects the U.S. to move away from the ‘same talk narrative’ and anticipates more being done this time round. The failure of the U.S. to recognize and take action against climate change, the single greatest threat to the Pacific, is a key issue that the new Biden government may address. If the U.S. and Australia are not proactive on climate, PNG expects China will step into the gap to win immeasurable goodwill from the entire region. Should this take place, China’s dominance in the Pacific will be guaranteed.

The Pacific Ocean is a place of many small countries that need to strategically cooperate, not compete, to survive. The best way forward is for all nations to cooperate with each other as they tackle the greatest threats and make the world a safer place. The U.S. and China have different strengths in the Pacific and provided that each side’s intentions remain benign, they should be complementing each other’s interests and roles rather than competing. There are many regional bodies and forums that both countries could use to collaborate with member states as they provide working solutions that improve the lives of all people in the Pacific.


Many thanks for the comments, advice and input from Adrian Winnie, Bernard S. Yegiora, Felix Arut, Jerry Mathew Jnr, Joelson M. Anere, Mark Haihuie, Teddy E. Winn, and several others who prefer to remain anonymous.

[1] Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies
[2] Political Science Department, University of Papua New Guinea

The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the DKI APCSS or the United States Government.

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Date: 2021/02/11
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