Politics by Numbers: Counting Plato’s Shadows

By James R. Sullivan
WSD-Handa Fellow

Abstract / Summary
Stories are at the core of our understanding of humanity, as well as central to many concepts at the heart of International Relations theory. The Chinese Communist Party has been adept at story telling for many years and for many purposes inclusive of intra-elite competition, maintenance of regime support, and tactical negotiations. These stories become especially critical during periods of regime transition, as we witnessed during the recently concluded Twentieth National Party Congress.

This paper leverages Natural Language Processing techniques applied to the GDELT database to quantify tones expressed on a variety of topics, targeting a range of both internal and external audiences. We show four facts: 1) China only began telling a more negative narrative regarding the United States post the beginning of the COVID pandemic in late 2019, but not prior; 2) China’s tone regarding the United States was consistent and relatively neutral across its civilian and military populations till late 2019, at which time the civilian tone became far more negative than the tone expressed to their military population; 3) XI Jinping’s tonal difference when discussing Taiwan across internal vs. external audiences is now at the highest divergence recorded; 4) Significant tonal differences are shown across various members of the previous Standing Committee. The tone for Xi Jinping has historically been the most positive but dipped into negative levels three times in 2022.

National Security Strategy, Grand Strategy, Great Power Competition

Kumar Vemuri, Ian Johnston

The power of the stories that sit at the center of human existence has been understood since the writing of Plato’s Republic in 380 B.C., extending on to the present day with psychologist Robyn Dawes suggesting that “humans are primates whose cognitive capability shuts down in the absence of a story”. (Dawes, 1999). This concept has also been widely applied in the realm of geopolitics, central to concepts such as soft power (Nye, 1997) as well as the distinction between structural security dilemmas (which exist in the “real” world, or Jervis’ operational milieu) vs. perceptual security dilemmas (occurring in Jervis’ psychological milieu). (Jervis et all, 1985) Analysis of the stories a country tells itself and others can even provide evidence of a country’s ambition to become a great power. (Miller, 2021)

But…what if you could control the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave? (Plato, 1888)

The Chinese Communist Party has been actively creating, monitoring, and modifying the stories it tells the people of China for many years. This capability has allowed it to leverage public opinion in ways that both enable as well as constrain optionality. Stories can create action – “Where there is such coherence in narrative, the results can be highly compelling in terms of mobilization”. (Betz, 2008) This directed mobilization of public opinion can serve multiple strategic goals. First, it may shore up regime support, as shown in a clear historic pattern of blaming “hostile foreign forces” during periods of regime legitimacy challenge. (Johnston, 2017) Second, it may serve strategic purposes in negotiations, with leaders arguing that they cannot offer further flexibility on an issue without the risk of public backlash, in line with Fearon’s concept of “tying of hands”. (Fearon, 1997). Successful execution of such a strategy, however, requires the guiding hand to remain hidden. This is not always the case, as noted regarding Beijing’s narrative around the 2011 incidents in the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands when it was suggested that “Beijing might have a point when saying it had to answer to public sentiment at home, but such a sentiment was at least in part its own creation to begin with”. (Sun, 2011)

This paper applies Natural Language Processing techniques to the GDELT database (GDELT, 2022) in order to analyse the stories that China is telling, and to whom; across topics, publications, target audience, and language. We quantify Pure Tones, or the tone used in all articles about a particular topic, as well as Volume Weighted Intensity Tones, which weight Pure Tones by the quantity of their instance.

Publications can themselves be used as a proxy for the target audience. We analyze the People’s Liberation Army People’s Daily (here) to understand the stories told to China’s military, vs. the People’s Daily (here) to understand stories told to the general public. Measuring the differences between the two narratives may drive insight.

Lastly, analyzing tones present in different language publications from the same source (for example the People’s Daily in English (here) vs. Mandarin (here)) can be a proxy for a domestic vs. an international target audience.

The stories told now matter
This analysis is pursued at a critical juncture in time. Leadership transitions trigger a period of intra-elite competition that has historically been a primary source of regime risk in autocratic regimes. (Johnston, 2017) These regimes typically secure elite support through the transfer of “rents” which can be either economic (access to investments, liquidity, currency conversion etc.) or political (promotions, more senior posts within the Government & Party). (Dixit, 2009) The current transition period is the first where a change in leadership, and therefore changes in rent transfers, occur during a period of declining economic growth. Declining rent transfers may increase the risk of intra-elite challenges which, in turn, may create pressure to pursue diversionary tactics to drum up popular support to mitigate these elite challenges. This is not a new concept, sitting as it does at the core of teachings as far back as Machiavelli. (Machiavelli, 2005) Recent academic work suggests that up to 40% of the conflict that China has initiated vis-à-vis the United States has been coincident with periods of declining rent transfers. (Baggot, 2016)

Narrative analysis can help us understand who is telling what story to who, and where opinion is lagging or leading various narratives. This in turn can help us understand if there is a pivot to a new group of supporters during periods of regime transition, as well as the existence of the type of diversionary tactics that might be pursued to reduce intra-elite challenges.

This paper presents four facts that are quantified through NLP / narrative analysis and suggests questions which may be consistent with these facts.

Fact #1: China’s negative story regarding the United States is new
Escalating tensions between China and the US have been in place for some time. The tone measured in narratives regarding the US, however, remained only mildly negative from 2017-2019. The Pure Tone of stories about the United States in the People’s Daily (the orange line in the chart below) as well as the PLA Daily (blue line) ranged roughly from +1 to – 2 during this period of time (larger number tones are more positive, negative number tones are more negative). A change occurred coinciding with the beginning of the COVID pandemic in late 2019 / early 2020, when the range dropped to 0 to -4.

Pure-Tone - United States Graph

Source: Vemuri, Johnson, Sullivan, GDELT

The fact is that stories that China told its people about the United States inflected negatively only in late 2019, despite rising tensions in the preceding years.

The open question is whether this was scapegoating. Autocrats frequently attempt to increase popular support during periods of regime transition to stave off elite competition. (Geddes, 2009) Given the recently completed National Party Congress (Zhu, 2022) it is possible that the government would more aggressively highlight external enemies to shore up regime support, per Johnson has mentioned above. The fact that this negative tone began to occur coincident with the COVID pandemic outbreak is also consistent with the idea that China was attempting to shore up regime support during a period of domestic turmoil.

Fact #2: China tells a different story to its military and civilian populations
We next weight the Pure Tone expressed by the volume of stories. This gives us a Volume Intensity Weighted Tone statistic, which in this particular analysis changes the picture in a meaningful way. Per the chart below, the Volume Intensity Weighted tone of the stories told to the general public (orange line, representing the People’s Daily) have become much more negative relative to the stories told to a military audience (blue line, representing the People’s Liberation Army Daily).

Source: Vemuri, Johnson, Sullivan, GDET

The chart below isolates this effect by calculating the difference between the Volume Intensity Weighted tone used with a civilian vs. military audience, and adds a rolling 12 month average. This highlights the increased negative civilian vs. military sentiment towards the US post January 2020, a slight rebound in July of 2021, and another downturn in the spring of 2022.

Volume Intensity Weighted Tone for term “United States” (PLA Daily – People’s Daily)
Volume Intensity Weighted Tone for term “United States” graph

Source: Vemuri, Johnson, Sullivan, GDELT

The fact is that the People’s Daily began publishing a large volume of negative stories regarding the United States targeting the general population of China in early 2020, while this volume of negativity was avoided in articles targeting its military (as proxied through the PLA Daily).

The open question is whether this illustrates an attempt to shore up popular support while avoiding putting the military on a war footing. The suggested conclusion of this analysis is that the data above is consistent with, but not dispositive of, the idea that China is pursuing diversionary tactics rather than preparing for actual conflict in the short term. Diversionary tactics should generate maximum domestic impact at limited international costs, i.e. should be high profile domestically, without materially impacting facts on the ground offshore. The recent actions post Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan indeed exhibit many of these characteristics. PLA actions were broadly and aggressively covered across Chinese social media and print assets, without doing anything that might prove irreversible.

Fact #3: Countries often tell an onshore and offshore version of stories

We next examine the stories told about specific topics domestically vs. internationally. One clear example of this are stories about Xi Jinping and Taiwan. The chart below shows the Volume Intensity Weighted tone for stories told domestically (Inward audience, proxied by the Mandarin version of the People’s Daily) vs. Internationally (Outward audience, proxied by the English language version of the People’s Daily). The gap currently sits just off the highest level seen over the past 5 years, i.e. the story told onshore is the most different (in this case, more positive) to the one told offshore at present (in this case, more negative), vs. anytime over the past five years.

Volume Intensity Weighted Tone for “Xi Jinping + Taiwan” (People’s Daily Mandarin – People’s Daily English)Volume Intensity Weighted Tone for “Xi Jinping + Taiwan” Graph

Source: Vemuri, Johnson, Sullivan, GDELT

This can perhaps be seen as an index of potential tension levels (with more back testing required). Narrative differentials may begin to peak during periods of rising tensions and fall during periods of calm (where there is little requirement to differentiate stories told to each audience). This remains a topic for future research.

Similar time series analysis can be run for an issue across multiple countries. The charts below show Volume Weighted Intensity Tone regarding “South China Sea” in six countries, across local language press (y-axis) and local English language press (X-axis). China is the only country with a positive local language press tone; China, Malaysia and the Philippines shows significant negative movement in English language tones during the study period, while Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam all saw more local language tone degradation.

Source: Sullivan, 2022

The fact is that stories told by China regarding Taiwan have seen a significant difference in tone between those told to a domestic vs. an international audience. Similar shifts in relative tone can also be seen across a host of other countries on a range of issues.

The question is if these rising narrative gaps can be used as a more accurate predictor of conflict risk, vs. solely looking at tone changes aimed at one or the other audience. This will take more work to explore.

Fact #4: Significant tonal differences exist across senior Chinese leaders

We can also leverage narrative analysis to try and better understand the relative momentum of senior leaders, an issue of particular importance during leadership transitions. The charts below (top chart zeroing in on 2021-present, the bottom chart showing 5 year trends) show Volume Intensity Weighted tone as expressed in the overall Chinese press. Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping generally shows the highest scores which are generally positive (although we note three negative tone periods for the first time within 2022). Zhao Leji interestingly has the second highest positive tones exhibited.

Source: Vemuri, Johnson, Sullivan, GDELT

An additional approach to this data is to examine relative sentiment. The chart below shows the Volume Intensity Weighted tone for Xi minus that for Zhao. A rising line represents sentiment shifting more in relative favor of Xi, a falling line represents sentiment shifting in relative favor of Zhao.

Volume Intensity Weighted Tone (Xi – Zhao) in People’s DailyVolume Intensity Weighted Tone (Xi – Zhao) in People’s Daily

Source: Vemuri, Johnson, Sullivan, GDELT

The fact is that tones in Chinese press for senior leaders differ significantly over time.

The question is whether this maps to the senior leader’s relative standing and whether this has implications for future leadership transitions.

But how does the story end?

The analysis in this paper is designed to measure facts and suggest questions. Further work is required for answers to be definitively provided to these suggested questions. Additional research is suggested across a range of case studies to understand the drivers and impact of tone differentials, or different stories being told, to various internal and external audiences. These tone differentials hold promise to better illustrate diversionary efforts vs. efforts designed to change facts on the ground, as well as highlight when divergence signals rising risk of action.


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November 2022

Date: 2022/11/21

U.S. Obsession with Old Dogma Facilitates a Chinese Quest for Pacific Control

By Commodore Kazi Emdadul Haq, BSP, ndu, psc, BN (retd)
Founding Member, Bangladesh Institute of Maritime Research and Development (BIMRAD)



Pursuing Sun Tzu’s strategy of deception to win without waging war, China has not only risen but challenged US supremacy, especially in the Pacific region. Awoken from hibernation, the United States found it difficult to maintain freedom at sea following Mahan’s sea control strategy. The United States was obsessed for decades with Huntington’s theory that made Islamic countries its enemy. The U.S, discovered, however, that China had become a formidable power challenging the US Monroe doctrine that serves as a soft foreign policy guide.

Due to perceived feelings of frustration and desertion by the U.S., some Pacific nations did not trust Western powers to address their core concerns – climate change, economic development, and sea pollution. China took this opportunity to court Pacific state leaders and began making security and economic deals with Pacific nations to gain allegiance. China is resolute in extending its influence in the Southwest Pacific region and in becoming a leading power in that region. China has already attained political advances in the Indian Ocean Region, and now China aims to become dominant in the Pacific.


Pursuing Sun Tzu’s strategy of deception to win without waging war, China has not only risen but challenged US supremacy, especially in the Pacific region. Awoken from hibernation, the United States found it difficult to maintain freedom at sea following Mahan’s sea control strategy. The United States was obsessed for decades with Huntington’s theory that made Islamic countries its enemy. The United States discovered, however, that China had become a formidable power challenging the U.S. Monroe doctrine that serves as a soft foreign policy guide.

Due to perceived feelings of frustration and desertion by the United States, some Pacific nations did not trust Western powers to address their core concerns – climate change, economic development, and sea pollution. China took this opportunity to court Pacific state leaders and began making security and economic deals with Pacific nations to gain allegiance. China is resolute in extending its influence in the Southwest Pacific region and in becoming a leading power in that region. China has already attained political advances in the Indian Ocean Region, and now China aims to become dominant in the Pacific.

Key Words: Pacific nations, core concern, climate change, obsession, great power, South China Sea.


Once chagrined and determined to avenge, nations in the East rose stealthily, while the U.S. was ruminating about its hubris of past glories. Awoken from obsession, the U.S. watched in bewilderment as China not only rose but began challenging its mighty economic and military superiority. Misguided obsession of the West enables China’s omnipotent presence all over the world. Confounding Western thinking, 69 countries, including several Pacific nations – Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and lately Vanuatu – backed a statement to the Human Right Commission in Geneva that announced that they considered issues concerning Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet to be China’s internal affairs. It is a matter of deep regret and demands careful study then that China could win the support of one-third of the world’s countries in favor of their crimes against humanity at the same time that China’s conduct is labelled as “malign” by the West, and while defying U.S. security strategy and challenging U.S. policy.

With a long-term strategic plan to expand its sphere of influence, China was able to entice Pacific leaders to make unjust deals under the banner of “security and economic cooperation” during the West’s investment vacuum in region while simultaneously addressing the Pacific nations’ most concerning issues. China already established its dominance in the South China Sea (SCS), its primary gateway to the Pacific by claiming almost all of it and thereby intensifying the great power competition in the Pacific.

This article will address how U.S. missteps enabled China to become a great power that coerced Pacific nations to succumb to its economic coercion, and that now poses a severe threat to U.S. freedom of action in the Indo-Pacific region.

The U.S. Misguided Obsession with China’s Rise

 The United States and its allies were busy fighting so-called “Islamic terrorists” for almost three decades. Perhaps US strategists were too obsessed with Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations, which was proved to be an “intellectual catastrophe.” The book was published in 1996 and became one of the most influential of its time. Subsequently, the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, but while doing so the Pentagon did not consider that China would rise to pose a challenge to U.S. hegemony. Rather, the United States helped China to rise economically by allowing China to join World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. From hunger and poverty fifty years ago, China became the world’s second-largest economic power and continues ascending economically and militarily.

Signals from the United States are also obfuscated in dealing with China. Before COVID-19, the United States and its allies wanted to decouple from China economically, but now the United States wants competitive engagement without conflict or confrontation. With this double-minded intention, how the United States will gain control of the great power competition with China has become an enigma. More so, these two great powers will find it difficult to coexist as Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping  touts[1] socialism is superior to capitalism, contrary to Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, who said that these two systems can “coexist and cooperate”. China’s robust economy will enable it to build a formidable People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) that will pose more challenges to U.S. freedom in the Indo-Pacific. In June 2022, China launched its third 80,000-ton supercarrier (the Type 003, FUJIAN) capable of operating 50 to 70 aircraft, the first carrier to firmly challenge the size of the U.S. Navy’s Ford and Nimitz class carriers. Although Type 003 is conventionally powered, its fourth aircraft carrier is expected to be molten salt nuclear reactor powered.

The Monroe Doctrine has been a soft foreign policy of the United States for decades. However, all great powers have similar doctrines in their own spheres of influence. The United States has already started to feel the challenge of China’s doctrine in the SCS. Stirred by Monroe, historian Alfred Thayer Mahan advocated for sea control and for creating naval deterrence. To the contrary, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu defined what has become enduring Chinese strategy in his book The Art of War. Contrary to Mahan’s deterrence, Sun Tzu’s “winning without fighting” strategy specifies mainly deception, and China closely follows his strategy prescription. For example, by bending the agreed rules of engagement regarding the use of arms at the Ladakh border, China killed 20 Indian soldiers in May 2021. Since the era of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic reform, formulated in the 1980s when China was poor, China has also avoided conflict by using its leading economic power.

Following Mahan’s theory, the United States, along with likeminded partners such as the United Kingdom, has added more ships in the Indo-Pacific to conduct Freedom of Navigations Operations (FONOP), which in practice accomplishes little strategically and has failed to win support of other Indo-Pacific states, particularly in the Pacific Islands. The economy, rising sea level, sea pollution, etc. are the most troubling issues that the West should have instead addressed. Instead, China was able to lure these nations into making deals using deceitful techniques, and thereafter, exerted influence over these nations using its economic leverage. Willingly or unwillingly, most of the littoral states tilted toward China. These states now continue doing so because of their growing fear of China’s economic coercion.

In the present day, Monroe’s doctrine or Mahan’s theory may have been applicable with some modification, but Monroe and Mahan did not consider the tiny Pacific nations’ significant roles and concerns. The islanders felt neglected for many decades and then forfeited their sovereignty to China, seeing the opportunity for economic development but without foreseeing the grave consequences regarding sovereignty.

Monroe’s policy will fail to stop China from encroaching on US territories in the Pacific. Without providing confidence to the Pacific nations, the ships of the United States and its allies will become the Chinese dragon’s fodder. There will be great difficulty in finding the strategic relevance of Mahan in simply carrying out FONOPs.

People’s Perceptions vs Old U.S. Dogma

The future is always unpredictable, and as such, most scholars and thinkers failed to accurately predict the future. Rather, their inaccurate judgments provoked the United States to adopt an ineffective strategy for which the West suffered time and again, including the people of the United States. Today’s general population is much more informed and cannot be duped for long. Other than a few propaganda machines, today, most believe that the United States attacked Iraq unjustly, that Afghanistan was devastated by invasion from both East and West, that Syria suffered from the clash of East and West, that America prefers kingship in Saudi Arabia rather than democracy, and that Yemen became the victim of realpolitik backed by the United States, and so on.

No one outside of China believes that China’s rise is peaceful. The PLAN’s aggressive deployment and militarization of the islands in the SCS are utterly hegemonic. Democratic values are severely challenged by dictatorial leadership, and the absence of democratic values will enable China to seek alignment from more Pacific nations as a further challenge to the United States. The United States, however, can turn the tide in its favor by addressing the real issues of Pacific nations.

If we believe “there is no permanent friend or foe in politics,” then we also need to believe that the “axis of evil” states are supporting each other for the survival of their dictatorships, but that one day they will turn their back on one another and aim their nukes towards each other. The unfortunate lesson is that these states will not understand their proclivity to do so.

China’s Viable Long-term Oceanic Strategy

China’s sea routes through the Indian Ocean remains vulnerable due to the “Malacca Dilemma,” as described by Chinese President Hu Jintao in November 2003. As such, to avoid the Malacca Strait, China has planned two-pronged land connectivity in the ­Indian Ocean – one is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and the other is the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). To provide logistic support and security of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean, China opened base facilities in Djibouti, Maldives (Feydhoo Finolhu), and in Sri Lanka (Hambantota Port). These strategic arrangements will provide, at minimum, a more comfortable Chinese play in the Indian Ocean in case conflict breaks out. The “No Limit” friendship between China and Russia might present China with more opportunities for using Russian base facilities near the Indian Ocean.

As an alternative to Indian Ocean sea lanes, China also appears desperate to break through the “Arctic Sea Route”, expected to be ice-free by 2035. China’s huge nuclear icebreakers would be able to keep the Arctic route navigable in case of need. Since China secured a strategic position in the Indian Ocean, it now wants to exert its influence over a relatively greater area within the Pacific Ocean.

Due to the existence of the First Island Chain in the East China Sea, the gateway to the Pacific through the East China Sea would become hazardous for China during conflict. These strategic difficulties compelled China to be more assertive in the SCS to keep its sea lanes secure in any situation. Parading its impressive naval power in the Pacific would enable China to assert a forceful influence in the region. Although China possesses a large navy, its capability and endurance are much less than the US Navy. As such, it needs Pacific nations’ support – logistics, economics, bunkering, etc. In case of conflict, these nations would also provide valuable intelligence information.

Another Chinese aim of Pacific supremacy is to acquire the support of as many countries as possible in its favor. China’s goal is the amalgamation of support in its favor such that the United States would acquiesce and ultimately Taiwan would slowly and steadily be subjugated to China without waging war in accordance with Sun Tzu’s strategy.

China’s Recent Activities in the Pacific

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 will have a perennial consequence in the Pacific region. The Pacific nations’ fear of aggression will exponentially rise if Russia succeeds in the Ukraine. These nations would be enticed to take the side of preferred great powers due to fear of the absence of reliable security providers. The Pacific nations appear to be disenchanted with the West as the West has failed to address their most important issues for the last couple of decades, such as climate change. Lack of commitment among the great powers on climate and in keeping the global warming level to 1.5°C, has added more frustration to the Pacific region. Instead, China took this opportunity and began to pursue Pacific leaders through various economic and security engagements.

China’s new facilities at Cambodia’s  Ream Naval Base on the Gulf of Thailand for the PLAN stirred reminiscence of Henry Kissinger’s infamous saying, ”A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” However, China has intentions throughout all of the Pacific.

The absence of a US embassy in Honiara, which was closed in 1993, paved the way for the Solomon Islands to shift its allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019. Taking the relationship to the next level, in April 2022, China made a security agreement with the Solomon Islands. Although the deal was kept secret, it was revealed from a leaked draft document that the Solomon Islands might request Chinese police and military to the country in exchange for Chinese ship visits, logistical replenishment, and stopovers in the islands. There was a huge negative reaction in Australia and the United States, and subsequently, the United States decided to re-establish an embassy in the Solomon Islands after receiving reports from a high-level U.S. delegation that visited Honiara. How far the U.S. is able revitalize the situation in its favor remains for debate, but the incident displays the impact of lack of U.S. presence and strategic thinking in region. In the absence of a U.S. embassy, China accelerated its efforts in making bilateral deals with many other Pacific nations.

The entente between the Solomon Islands and China needs careful consideration. Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s dudgeon against Australia echoes pent-up frustration. It could be a stark reminder that the islanders did not forget that “white” Australia deported “black” Solomon Islanders from Queensland in 1904 who worked in the sugar plantation in the 1870s. The Solomon Islands Prime Minister appears unhappy with Australia despite Australia’s pledge to engage the islands with programs of assistance.

Encouraged by the successful deal with the Solomon Islands, China sent its Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Pacific nations to secure a trade and security deal with 10 Pacific nations just after the Quad leaders meeting in Tokyo. Fortunately, they all rejected it while meeting with their counterparts in Fiji on 26 May 2022. It sends a clear message to the West that China has yet to intimidate the leaders of the Pacific but that these tiny nations need real friends who will address their concerns.

As the United States has delineated the responsibilities of AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and USA) and Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) in the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States,[2] the AUKUS may come forward to address the Pacific security and at the same time, Quad may address the climate issue. Due to Australia’s proximity, Australia needs to lead AUKUS in the Pacific region.


There is no such people’s belief in a “peaceful rise.” It has been proved during the reign of imperialist powers, and the United States is no exception. The United States needs to understand that the time has come to adjust its age-old dogma considering the real concerning issues of the Pacific Islands – climate change, economic development, sea pollution, etc. Further, the United States will have difficulty implementing Mahan’s strategy by pouring additional hulls into the sea without addressing these issues. The United States needs to include them in its security umbrella to better compete in great power competition. Otherwise, China will gain influence by adopting a deceitful strategy over the Pacific nations and win without waging war.

China’s continued assertiveness in the SCS suggests that China will not be dissuaded by the failed deal with 10 Pacific nations. China will keep trying to make deals with the Pacific islands to fulfill its quest for Pacific control.

As the Pacific leaders walked away from China’s deal, it paved the way for the West to address their concerns before it is too late. Australia’s continued economic aid, the prospect for the Pacific people to migrate to AUKUS countries, working opportunities, and above all, democratic values and freedom of expression put AUKUS in a much better and advantageous position which China cannot provide because of an opaque dogma of socialism.

The absence of reliable great power compelled the Pacific leaders to take the side of China. Trends of coattail benefit by leaders are rising in the Pacific nations in the absence of democratic values. People love democratic values and freedom of expression. Given this belief, Pacific nations still decide to take the side of China, which would infer a dismal failure on the part of the West, especially the United States.

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[1] The Elements of China Challenge, The Policy Planning Staff, Office of the Secretary of State, Page 5.

[2] Indo-Pacific Action Plan – Part III.

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. October 2022

Date: 2022/10/17

Challenges of the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations

by Muggi Tuvdendarjaa

Keywords: The United Nations (UN), Security Council, General Assembly, Protection of Civilians, Armed Conflict, challenges, peacekeeping.

Abstract: The United Nations provides peace and security throughout the world and has countless achievements and experience in peacekeeping operations. Its main objectives are to maintain international peace and security, take actions collectively, and to promote cooperation among the nations to support the resolution of the issues in the areas of economics, social, humanitarian, and human rights matters. It also acts as the main coordinator among the member nations in achieving these goals. According to many recent published studies by scholars and practitioners, the global security environment is becoming unpredictable, which can be attributed to big powers’ strategies as well as the evolution of nontraditional warfare throughout the world.

As one of the biggest international organizations, the UN remains responsible for maintaining international peace and security in this new era. This article illustrates several obstacles that the UN faces including strategic, operational, and tactical challenges.

The United Nations does not have any permanent military or police force under its auspices. It conducts peacekeeping operations (PSOs) at a tactical level in support of its member states. The UN Security Council establishes, monitors, and sends PSOs into the field. UN mandates are the primary documents referred to in providing guidance on a wide range of strategies. These mandates are developed at senior political and diplomatic levels, and are the basis for planning, conducting, and controlling the PSOs. The following are three types of mandates that peace operations use:

  • Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) Women, Peace, and Security
  • Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005) Children and Armed conflict
  • Security Council Resolution 1674 (2006) Protection of civilians in armed conflict

Based on the mandate, military and police forces participating in the PSOs perform specific tasks and follow rules of engagement. During PSOs, military forces protect civilians, provide humanitarian assistance, protect UN personnel and equipment, and maintain security in operation areas as mandated. The Rules of Engagement (ROE) are the legal instruments that set out the conditions and restrictions on the usage of the weapons in operations by the contingent commander of the Troop Contributing Countries. PSOs are conducted by the military, police forces, civilian police, and civilian personnel by the mandates given at the area of operations. This is done to ensure safety and security, develop political and civil-military relations, and enhance human rights, freedom, and humanitarian assistance. During PSOs, humanitarian assistance is usually conducted by humanitarian organizations while military forces act to provide security and share information as required.

Briefly looking at the history of PSOs, initially, peacekeeping operations were aimed at controlling armed conflict and isolating regional disputes. Since the 1980s, however, PSOs have also been used to regulate civil war and local armed conflict. And now, since the 1990s, peacekeeping forces have monitored opposing parties’ support for peace activities according to the Charter of the United Nations and the Law of Armed Conflict. PSOs have expanded activities and changed their nature as peacebuilding and humanitarian assistance endeavors. This shift is directly associated with the nature and threat to the peace and security of national and non-national actors at international and regional levels.

In addition to UN limitations and other international and national laws, and customs, PSOs execute missions and activities in dangerous environments, including theaters between adversaries within frameworks for accepted legal, ethical, and other mandates. PSOs require collective efforts as the UN is charged with supporting international organizations, groups, and components with a cohesive goal. Though a total of 4197 peacekeepers have been killed in PSOs in the past, thousands of civilians were protected while national independence, peace and prosperity were maintained. For example, in the past, PSOs successfully resolved armed conflicts in Lebanon, Yemen, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Ivory Coast, and Liberia through peaceful means.

Peacekeeping Operations challenges
Both United National troops and police-contributing countries must analyze all levels of challenges in their respective areas to ensure the effectiveness of UN operations. There are many obstacles noted by scholars, practitioners, and UN official working group reports in this regard. Challenges may be classified on strategic, operational, and tactical levels, and are presented as follows.

A. At the strategic level, the issues are addressed in the areas of leadership systems, legislation, global order, and finance.

Leadership system. The failure of leadership, combined with poor management, discipline, and widespread inefficiency, weakness, and insignificance of some traditional PSO approaches indicate the need to reform and improve the structure of UN PSOs. For example, misunderstandings and slow work processes between organizations have negatively affected strategic and operational level activities. This further exacerbates the complexity for peacekeepers to carry out their mandate at the tactical level in areas of operation.

Legislation. The troop and police-contributing countries’ non-consensus understanding of PSO Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA), mandates, Rules of Engagement, combined with inconsistencies between decision-makers, mandate developers at high levels, and units implementing the mandates on the ground, raises issues about the effectiveness of PSOs. Unsatisfactory performance and SOFA violations by some host country institutions and authorities, such as restricting the movement of personnel on the ground and disrupting the UN logistic support operations, have led to continuous disruptions. In 1990, based on lessons learned from Rwandan operations, the United Nations began to focus on protection of civilians, and in 2010 the United Nations adopted the Concept of Civil Protection. In this regard, the UN has conducted research and investigation to monitor the implementation of international humanitarian law by host nation governments in compliance with international humanitarian law. According to some studies, the mandates provide conditions for host nation governments or authorities to avoid obligations to protect civilians and instead entrusts this responsibility to the United Nations. For instance, opposing parties within the Republic of South Sudan, and their supporters, have killed, tortured, and robbed civilians causing them to flee to the “Protection of Civilian” camps, or escape to Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan. It may be concluded that the government of South Sudan was not responsible while the government’s security forces were actually to blame for harming civilians.

Global order. The geopolitical and strategic interests of some of the world’s most powerful nations, as well as competition for international standing, have affected decision-making at strategic levels of the United Nations, creating conflicts of interest. Between 1948 and 1988, the UN conducted a total of 13 PSOs with most of the troop-contributing countries being Canada, India, Ghana, and Scandinavian countries. Since 1988, however, western countries have drastically reduced their troop numbers to United Nations missions and stepped up their NATO military missions to pursue national interests. In absence of big powers’ influence to maintain international peace and stability, China has strengthened its position in the UN Security Council by influencing the decision-making processes. China thus has a considerable impact on further international governance and the political order of international security.

If big powers’ interests and positions are not balanced on the international stage, some powers may dominate international organizations or take advantage of situations for their own interests. Such an unbalancing consequence may cause difficulty for the independence of smaller nations or for peace and stability in certain regions.

B. At the operational level, issues are identified in terms of the nature of the armed conflict, methods of operation, and readiness.

Nature of the armed conflict. Modern armed conflicts have witnessed small-scale, lightly-armed, high-tech-enabled, mounted groups capable of inflicting great damage in short periods of time. Their form of hostility is hard to identify as they do not model or shaped themselves as traditional adversaries do. There is also an evolving threat of violent extremism, transnational terrorism, and transnational organized crime, which bring about unimaginable collateral damage. This has created a need for PSOs to increase involvement in the protection of civilians, and security from terrorists, terrorist groups, and criminal gangs while attempting to build the capacity of government forces to work independently. This environment is difficult for peacekeepers to operate in, unless peace and stability are restored – which rarely happens in these types of operational areas. For example, the extremist activities of “Boko Haram” in northern Nigeria, international terrorism in Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and the Sahel region, as well as transnational organized crime, have negatively affected PSOs and made no progress in the peace process. The death toll of at least 462 United Nations and associated personnel who were killed in deliberate attacks in the past 11 years from improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, artillery fire, mortar rounds, landmines, armed and successive ambushes, convoy attacks, suicide attacks, and targeted assassinations are telling. It has become increasingly difficult to characterize warfare, armed conflicts, and civil movements that have taken place in such mission areas.

Methods of operation. Today illegal activities of state and non-state actors often emerge within a nation or region in the form of internal riots, falls of legal institutions, crises, and armed conflicts. This shows that monitoring ceasefire agreements and protecting civilians – which are the main forms of traditional peacekeeping operations – are not always effective. PSOs requires a wide range of social and military activities in cooperation with the host country’s legitimate institutions to support or restore a host country’s government and social institutions in order to make them sustainable and independent.

Readiness. Because the United Nations does not have a standing army or police force of its own, it is not possible to mobilize the military and police forces of multinational member states and send them to field missions in a short period of time. This is an issue not only for the sake of military cooperation, but also for UN civilian personnel management. Hence it is important to train peacekeepers in modern hybrid and unbalanced combat operations through intensive training methods and programs.

C. At the tactical level, issues are identified in terms of a common understanding of the operation, cooperation, discipline, and code of conduct.

A common understanding of operations is crucial for effective employment of UN forces. The lessons learned from Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia show that some peacekeeping operations have failed due to inactive or weak political and financial institutions, tangible and intangible assistance from UN member states, lack of initiative on important issues, different capacities, lack of resources, and lack of consensus on cooperation in decision-making and mission execution. In recent years, military and police personnel have found it extremely difficult to anticipate and respond to different types of threats. This is because extremists are intensifying activities, illegal cross-border trade, and smuggling. Terrorist groups are carrying out acts of sabotage that are not limited in time, method, and location. Because of this, there are serious issues raised related to peacekeeping operations in UNMISS, for example. In this regard, it is important to develop a common understanding of operations under a single mandate.

Multilateral cooperation. It remains a challenge to find a comprehensive and effective leadership system that can support the integration of organs of the United Nations and non-United Nations in areas of operation. For example, in the DRC, Sudan, and Afghanistan, the lack of cooperation between PSO actors has hampered peace and security, and thus all involved face challenges. For instance, in the case of the Congo PSO, experts assessed that if the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs members had worked more closely with the Force commander, provided detailed guidance on responsibilities, opportunities, and support, and had also acted in accordance with the stated plan for cooperation with military contingents, the operation could have been conducted with minimal risk.

Discipline or code of conduct. Peacekeepers, police members, and civilian personnel serving in PSOs have engaged in sexual harassment, behavioral misconduct, and misunderstanding related to local customs, mishandling of UN properties, and discrimination based on age, race, and gender. For example, more than 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were repatriated from the PSO in Haiti for sexual exploitation and harassment. Another incident in Haiti witnessed Nepalese Army peacekeepers proclaiming that “the locals are very lazy; they do not cultivate; they do nothing. Haiti’s population is high in disease and poverty because they don’t care about their health.” These statements insulted the people of the host nation and created an unfortunate situation where locals turned against the peacekeepers. There is no negating that such actions can smear the reputation of the United Nations, undermine the success of an operation, and even affect the safety and security of the blue helmets.

The United Nations is the most important independent global organization for maintaining peace and security in the international arena. The successes and achievements of this organization of multinational powers are invaluable. Many member states will continue to appoint monitoring and evaluation teams at all policy levels, prioritizing their assessments and making appropriate legal and organizational or functional changes to encourage the effective participation of member nations.

For example, the nature of the wars, armed conflicts, and civil movements in African countries over the past five years indicate that there is a need to improve and modernize the traditional UN military and police peacekeeping operations to address problems quickly. Increasing the involvement of law enforcement, legislatures, police, and skilled civilian personnel in capacity-building administration and governance capacities could make peacekeeping more effective. There is also an urgent need to improve operational mandates, conduct special research or study on rules of engagement, and clarify the responsibilities and rights of host nations, opposing parties, and the UN itself.

Future approaches to, and development of, UN PSOs depend not only on the multilateral policies but also on member states’ commitment. For instance, there is a need to update the pre-deployment training of military contingents utilizing lessons learned from previous missions to ensure that weapons and equipment of the countries serving in the PSOs are not obsolete and that personnel are mentally and physically prepared for operational areas and weather conditions. It is also essential to improve legal frameworks and documents providing oversight for PSO participation, rights, duties, and responsibilities. All of this combined will enable more effective and efficient regional and sub-regional organizational participation in peacekeeping operations, as well as enhance collaboration amongst member states at a higher strategic and operational level than is currently witnessed.

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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.
June 2022

Date: 2022/10/07

Cross-Domain Repercussions of the Continuing India-China Border Conflict   

By Srini Sitaraman


In the summer of 2020, during the early peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, India-China clashed on the mountain ridges of the Himalayas. This collision involved hand-to-hand combat with clubs and metal rods that caused the death of 20 Indian military personnel and four Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers.[1] As with the clash, the political and military relationship between India and China rapidly deteriorated. India and China have aggressively fortified the border areas and they are rapidly building military structures along the border areas that include the construction of access roads, bunkers, helipads, ammo depots, and placement of artillery. Indian Army Chief General MM Narvane said that “if the Chinese are there to stay, we are there to stay too.” General Narvane insisted that it is a “matter of concern” for India that the Chinese are engaging in large-scale infrastructure build-up and that the defense posture of both countries along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) is one of readiness. As of April 2022, despite several rounds of corps commander lever talks, there is no indication that there are any substantial shifts in the positions of both countries away from a posture of heightened preparedness. This paper examines the economic and political consequences of the summer 2020 military clashes along the LAC. The border clash is having cross-domain repercussions in the areas of (a) bilateral trade; (b) cyber and mobile tech; and (3) bi-lateral travel and visa issues between India and China. This paper will discuss how India is struggling to reduce its trade and economic dependence on China, cut off its reliance on Chinese mobile and cyber technology to better manage cyberattacks and hacking, and finally, both countries are engaging in tit-for-tat travel bans and using bilateral visa issue as a political weapon.

India-China Bilateral Trade

India and China entered into a free-trade agreement in 1984 and bestowed the most favored nation (MFN) status on each other. Both countries started slowly, with bilateral trade averaging less $3billion USD in 2001 (see Figure 1). A series of bilateral trade agreements opened the door for increasing trade between both the countries, which is currently recorded at $125 billion in 2021, with the balance of trade sharply tilting strongly in favor of China.[2] India’s negative trade balance with China has witnessed a sharp increase during the pandemic from $45.9 billion in 2020 to $69.4 billion in 2021. The trade relationship with Beijing resembles the classic developing economy model. India’s exports predominantly consist of primary commodities and raw materials such as cotton, iron ore, copper and diamonds, natural gems and import of machinery, power-related equipment, telecom, organic chemicals, and fertilizers. For a long time, India has been seeking to persuade China to open its pharmaceutical markets and its domestic Information Technology (IT) market to Indian firms without much avail. Indian trade analysts argue this would allow India to close the trade gap and bring some balance to the bilateral economic relations. But, importantly, there is growing alarm over India’s increasing trade dependence on China while the military conflict along the LAC continues to be a major source of friction between the two countries.

Worried about Chinese military designs in the region and apprehensive about China’s aggressive diplomacy in South Asia, India has increased its military spending and embarked on a domestic manufacturing process and is attempting to increase the diversity of its external trade partners. Principally, there is heightened concern that China could (and would) easily choke off the supply of goods and basic commodities to India during a larger military conflict with China.

Figure 1: India-China Bilateral Trade Balance (2001-2020)

Raw Trade Data Source: Embassy of India, Beijing, China; PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jan 2018, New Delhi, India; Graph compiled by the author.

Conflict Crosses into the Cyber World

Beijing is engaging in what some have dubbed as unrestricted warfare against India. Attack on all fronts and apply pressure on the political, economic, and social fronts, thereby weakening the enemy and compelling the enemy to acquiesce. During the military clash along the Galwan River Valley in the Himalayas, China launched cyber-attacks on Indian power grids in Mumbai in October 2020, shutting down power in India’s largest city Mumbai. Subsequently, malware was also discovered in networks targeting the power grids in Ladakh region in Kashmir. In a move to blunt Chinese cyberattacks and demonstrate growing displeasure with Chinese-based cellphone Apps, India has embarked on a systematic process of banning of Chinese Apps and discontinuing digital contracts and other telecommunications projects with Chinese firms.

India has outright banned or restricted 274 apps from all mobile devices, including highly popular apps such as Tik Tok, Weibo, WeChat, and a wide range of gaming apps such as Free Fire, PUBG, and other social media and payment apps. There are stories of people in India still downloading these apps using VPN, but officially a list of 274 mobile apps are banned on Indian cell networks. Immediately following the military clash, there was a strident call for a boycott of Chinese goods and investment in India. Indian Railways cancelled $63.3 million contract with the Beijing National Railway Research and Design Institute. Later, the Indian Telecommunications Ministry excluded China’s Huawei and ZTE Corp from its 5G network trials. Interestingly enough, the banning of Chinese Apps has led to a blossoming of the Indian startups emerging to fill the gaps that have opened up. Meanwhile, the Indian tax authorities are conducting searches, interviews, and freezing assets in several locations of Huawei Technologies, ZTE, and Xiaomi in India as a part of a broader tax investigation. These tax raids have irked Beijing. The Chinese Chambers of Commerce in India and the India-China Mobile Phone Enterprise Association are complaining about discriminatory business practices.

Travel and Visa-Ban Issue

The Chinese information and telecommunications bureau has long used firewalls to block Indian news and entertainment content and apps from reaching the Chinese audience, and it is ironical that Beijing is now complaining about India’s app ban and cancellations of some infrastructure contracts. India has caught on to the double standards of Chinese information laws that privilege domestic industries and the biased treatment of foreign firms. India’s app ban was not only driven by cybersecurity issues and data privacy concerns but it was also intended as a signal that India also possesses options that cut across domains. It demonstrates that India is willing to pursue countervailing actions in cyber and economic domains.

New Delhi also banned Chinese visitors from entering India on tourist visas. This was another indication that India is prepared to engage in tit-for-tat tactics to counter Chinese actions in the cyber and military domain. In 2021 China banned the entry of Indian sailors and some Indian ships from entering Chinese ports, causing disruptions in livelihoods and supplies. Ostensibly the reason was COVID, but geopolitical motives underlie this ban on Indian sailors. More than 23,000 Indian medical students studying in China have been barred entry into China. Official reasons being offered for barring the entry of these students is the spread of COVID by foreigners, but most suspect this to be another instance of Beijing deciding to weaponize the student visa issue because of the border conflict. Few years back, the People’s Republic began “issuing loose leaf stapled visas instead of properly stamped ones to the Indian citizens of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)” and it denied entry to an Indian Army general from Indian Kashmir who was participating in a meeting in Beijing. In effect, China was attempting to convey that it does not recognize India’s sovereignty over Kashmir.

Despite all these actions and counter-actions, certain ground economic realities drive mutual relations between both countries. There is an acute awareness that India needs to go beyond banning apps, but develop a more comprehensive set of laws to ensure data privacy and prevent cyberattacks. The near successful attack on the Indian power grids and the high dependence on Chinese telecommunications—software and hardware—was exposed over the last two years. Additionally, India’s dependence on China for active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), electronic components, personal protective equipment for pandemics (PPE), automobile spare parts, and a host of other commodities has noticeably exposed India’s trade vulnerabilities vis-à-vis China.


India has pursued a set of economic and foreign policy options over the last decade that rested on the assumption that it could detach the border conflict while it pursued an economic relationship with China. Sadly, the limits of such an arrangement have been abruptly exposed. It is now plainly evident that no amount of trade, economic alliance, or high profile summits at the top level could force a change of the territorial calculus vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China and Chairman Xi Jinping. Unless a grand bargain for a territorial settlement is attempted, the likelihood of serious military conflict between India and China remains extremely high. Unfortunately, Beijing does not seem particularly interested in any such grand bargains, and it continues to engage in unrestricted warfare, salami slicing, and a wide variety of gray zone tactics to reshape the territorial boundaries along the LAC to its ever-expanding imagination.

[1] Some estimates put the number of Chinese PLA dead as high as 38, but the official count is only four + one, as acknowledged by the People’s Liberation Army command.

[2] Trade in services between India and China negligible or practically nonexistent. In comparison; US-China trade in services was $56b in 2020 (source: US Dept. of Commerce).

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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.
June 2022

Date: 2022/06/03

The Nature of Power: A Metcalfe’s Law National Security Strategy

by James Sullivan

Abstract / Summary

Comments from government officials, inclusive of United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and European Union Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, clearly indicate the potential end of the “Washington Consensus” around global free trade and the potential for regime change. At the same time, peer competitors such as the People’s Republic of China actively discuss “changes not seen in a century” and a goal of global leadership by 2049. Both of these facts require a discussion and reanalysis of the basis of power in the international system.

Conventional wisdom holds that centralized power within an authoritarian system provides a structural competitive advantage in whole-of-society competition. This paper refutes this, showing that Metcalfe’s Law implies that the many interconnected nodes in a decentralized system (such as a democracy) drive an exponential power advantage. United States national security strategy must be centered around the concept of distributed network advantage. This paper makes specific recommendations towards its application across innovation, economics, diplomatic and military efforts.


Douglas Greenlaw, Vice President of Strategic Growth, Research Innovations Incorporated


The hyperbolic statement that the world is at a crossroads is true, but not in the way it is popularly understood.

Peer competitors to the United States, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), talk about “changes not seen in a century” and describe this crossroad as an opportunity to change the nature of the international order (近平接2017年度外使工作会与会使表重要讲话, 2017). Their proposed order devolves power across multiple players and spheres of influence, with a new set of rules that enshrine power, rather than universal values, at the core of the system.

This paper argues that the world does sit at a crossroads, but one where the nature of power can be better understood in ways that strengthen the competitive position of the United States and western democracies. Much has been made of the rise of China, the return of Russia, and the potential for an alternative authoritarian model (Lemke & Tammen, 2003). These risks can be minimized, however, if the United States strategy recognizes and leans into the correct definition of the nature of power in the international system.

Defining the Nature of Power

Centralized control inherent in most authoritarian systems is seen as a structural advantage in whole-of-society competition (Sullivan, 2021). This drives an argument that authoritarian systems can replace democratic ones as the core driver of the global order (Chen, 2013). The PRC, for example, can centrally organize government, military, academic, and commercial efforts in unison. Democracies, driven by notions of separation of powers, private sector rights, and civil freedoms are seen as facing a dilemma. They must either sacrifice the rights that sit at the core of their systems or recognize that they are incapable of competing in a whole-of-society arena (Dowse & Bachmann, 2019).

This is a false dichotomy as it carries forward a flawed definition of power. A centrally controlled state may indeed be better at short-term execution of defined tactics. Central control and a unified power infrastructure reduce internal friction, minimizing intra-bureaucracy coordination and communication issues. It can drive faster decision-making and faster execution of decisions (Haozhe, 2015).

The world, and power, are governed, however, not by speed, but by insight and innovation. Insight and innovation are then in turn driven by debate and internal conflict and diversity of views and opinions. These are not the core advantages of an authoritarian system. Indeed, such systems can be seen to be incapable of their pursuit.

This understanding must rest at the core of US security strategy. It must rest at the core as it has driven US power since the nation’s inception. It must rest at the core as it is a strategy that authoritarian powers cannot replicate or counter over the long term.

It is not a coincidence that the authoritarian powers currently seen as “rising” lack both innovation-driven economies as well as meaningful alliance structures.

A Metcalfe’s Law National Security Strategy

Metcalfe’s Law states that the power of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users (Kocovic, 2008). This is a useful way to think about the scaling benefits of networks but also illustrates the fundamental weakness of a model where all meaningful connections originate from the center.

This paper argues that global power originates in innovation & insight, which drives technology, which drives the economy, which results in diplomatic and military strength. The implications of a Metcalfe’s Law approach to each of these areas will now be considered.

Innovation & Insight Power

The United States was or is home to 400 Nobel Laureates (World Population Review, 2022). Great Britain comes in second with 138. Russia, inclusive of the Soviet Union, comes in far lower with only 32 since 1901. China? 6. Clearly, there is scope for a debate regarding relative levels of economic development, among other factors. This paper, however, argues that innovation is a function of structure as much as of economic development.

The fact that the power of the atom was unlocked in the United States was driven by structure, by a society willing to accept internal conflict and divisive ideas, and one that was willing to accept them from all comers inclusive of the best minds from foreign shores. Insight and innovation are a function of decentralized networks of competing ideas. This concept is even being carried forward into advanced computing as generative adversarial networks (GAN) position two neural networks to compete against each other on a task to drive a better outcome than what one alone could achieve (Hong et al., 2019).

United States National Security policy must recognize this fact and take several specific steps to operationalize this idea. First, seed funding for basic research must be considered a national security priority. Second, policies must be created which allow for significant mobility across academia, government, and military positions to bring the best minds to bear on the most important problems. Government and military organizations are increasingly at a steep competitive disadvantage in recruiting and retaining the best technical and scientific talent in an age where private interests can offer multiples of the compensation available. Greater mobility can also help to break down some of the current cultural and organizational barriers that exist between the private sector (particularly in the technology space) and government service. Third, and perhaps more controversially, the United States should continue to attract the best academic minds from overseas and provide greater avenues for them to stay in the United States post-graduation. The lead scientist on the Manhattan Project was the son of German immigrants, and forty-five percent of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants and their children (New American Economy, 2019). Metcalfe’s math works regardless of the original nationality of the “connected user”.

Economic Power

A country’s economy is the core of its ability to provide a better life for its people, to develop and fund social services, and ultimately to create the means by which to pursue military activities (Beckley, 2018; Mearsheimer, 2014; Nye, 2011). It can also be a vehicle for conflict directly, as seen in economic warfare strategies deployed by the United Kingdom prior to World War I, by the United States prior to its entry into World War II, and the recent rise of economic sanctions as a tool of modern warfare (Lambert, 2012; Miller, 2007). United States National Security policy should focus on at least three ways to scale economic power.

First, policy must take a balanced view of globalization and trade, particularly regarding core technologies. The current move towards onshoring and nearshoring has a place but cannot be taken to an extreme. Global trade networks offer not only efficiency but also power, in line with Metcalfe’s law. These networks should therefore be kept as large as possible while recognizing the new global strategic reality, in line with recent comments from Treasury Secretary Yellen and European Central Bank President Legarde (Legarde, 2022; Olson, 2022; Yellen, 2022).

One example can be seen in the global semiconductor industry. The current approach, which appears popular in Washington, D.C. today, is to onshore as much capacity as possible(Biden, 2022). An alternative approach, designed to maximize the number of “connected users” in the system and therefore maximize efficiencies and insights, would be to recognize the value of a network distributed across allies while at the same time creating required redundancy in the system. Much has been made of the fact that China now has over 15% of the global semiconductor wafer capacity(Thomas, 2021). This is dwarfed, however, by the United States and its allies at over 75% of global capacity(Rosso, 2022). United States policy should focus on strengthening insight sharing and reducing trade frictions within this network of allies rather than focusing on entity and exclusion lists. United States policy should explicitly focus on the fact that while China has sprinted forward in replicating lower complexity chip production, they are still far behind in the marathon of advanced insight in chip design. The United States needs to win the strategic marathon, not the tactical sprint.

Second, trade networks are another source of Metcalfe-ian advantage. The United States should pursue mutually beneficial trade agreements with as many nations as possible. Clear messaging will be required to present these trade agreements as core tools of national security to turn the tide of negative domestic opinion regarding trade agreements. The PRC has clearly recognized the importance of trade networks, particularly in their near abroad where they are seeking to build a defined sphere of influence(Luo & Zhang, 2010). They have taken advantage of United States’ withdrawal from the then Transpacific Partnership and have now formally applied for membership into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership. The United States must re-engage so as not to allow the PRC to leverage Metcalfe-ian network strength in its absence.

Third, care should be taken to continue to strengthen the significant network advantages inherent in the global financial system. SWIFT, with its more than 11,000 institutions, continues to exhibit massive scale advantages over the Chinese-led alternative CIPS network with fewer than 1,200 institutions(SWIFT, 2022). This and other associated clearing and settlement mechanisms must be considered core to US power, along with the centrality of the US dollar to the global financial system. Explicit steps should be taken to maintain the centrality of these systems as a core pillar of United States national security.

Diplomatic and Military Power

The United States has over 50 collective defense agreements, spanning almost half the globe (Goldgeier, 2019). These are not “entanglements” but rather a critical source of strength in an interconnected world. Competitors such as the PRC and Russia have no such alliance network and, indeed in the case of the PRC, have long-standing policies to avoid them (Chaudhri, 1986). The United States must continue to take the type of multi-lateral approach pursued regarding the recent invasion of Ukraine.


United States National Security strategies must be based on three strategic pillars that increase network effects by eliminating seams across the spectrum of competition and conflict.

First, the system envisioned must be based on the idea that constant aggressive competition is the norm. This competition may at times move into kinetic conflict but exists at aggressive levels even during periods of “peace.” Departmental structures and policies must no longer distinguish between “competition” and “conflict,” as this is a false dichotomy in the modern world.

Second, the system must recognize that adversaries compete across all aspects of society (e.g., PRC’s “civil-military fusion” or San Zhong Zhanfa) and therefore requires a whole-of-society strategy (Weinstein, 2021). Critically, however, this whole-of-society positioning must recognize the primacy of decentralized networks as a core strength of the United States system, alongside the value of competing ideas. This dialectic sits at the core of the system and is of critical importance.

Third, the system must leverage global strength and alliances rather than divide into regions. The regional Combatant Command separation and lack of integration with allies must be overcome, leveraging globally integrated operations and strategies.

Throughout the above, the strategy must recognize the “messiness” of a democratic system is a feature, not a bug. It is indeed a key driver of its strength and resiliency. Maximizing independent connections both within and without the system is a critical driver of success in the strategy marathon, even at the expense of relative weakness in the tactical sprint.

A new National Security strategy must also be based on three organizational pillars.

First, there must be a balance between institutionalization and informality. Previous revisions to the National Security Act in practice and form show this dichotomy. Eisenhower’s “Policy Hill” and process-based approach was designed to eliminate departmental bias, ensure long-term thinking and competing views; but the significant bureaucracy it created led to the Jackson Subcommittee and Kennedy reforms designed to increase flexibility (Nelson, 1983; Newmann, 2015).

Second, attention must be paid to the role of accountability to allow operational flexibility and to address clear public concerns regarding abuses inherent in a system requiring confidential information and actions. All systems and processes should maximize accountability through oversight committees and required notifications prior to certain actions.

Third, a Metcalfe-based system with its squaring of impact with each new “connected party” fails if there is a lowest common denominator debate where parties are protecting parochial interests or are afraid of offending superiors. Indeed, one of the greatest weaknesses of authoritarian systems is the collapse over time of the network of advisors around the central power in the system and their ability to speak truth to power.

Potential Reorganization

Conway’s law argues that the output of an organization will be determined by its structure (McManus, 2019). This implies that the organizational structure of the United States National Security system must be designed with a recognition that a) innovation drives technology, which drives the economy, which drives diplomatic & military strength; and b) we are engaged in a whole-of-society continuous competition with at least one peer competitor who is explicitly seeking to lead the world order by 2049 (Yang, 2020).

The impact of organizational structure on operational delivery has already been clearly recognized in the US military. This was initially seen in efforts to integrate the various services through the introduction of the Chairman and the Joint Chiefs in the original National Security Act of 1947, as well as the subsequent creation of Combatant Commands assigned to the Secretary of Defense in 1953. This concept can be extended further to incorporate both civilian as well as military resources. Private sector and academic resources must be included on a partnership basis in this new construct to maximize the number of relevant “connected parties” and globally integrated operations must be the norm.

New legislation should consider a holistic approach to combining critical functions that currently sit across the US bureaucratic structure.

While a Department of Innovation sounds slightly Orwellian, critical capabilities that currently sit across the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense (which alone spends close to 50% of the total United States Government Research and Development budget), National Institute of Health, National Science Foundation, Departments of Energy and Agriculture, NASA and others (Sargent, 2021). There would be scope for an overall board if not a department focused on serving as a central node of innovation planning and investment. This node would critically not control overall spending but could prioritize across the United States Government and serve as a critical partner for private and academic players. A step in this direction has been taken with the National Science Foundation standing up the Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (NSF Establishes New Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, 2022).

A Department of Competition could serve as a critical clearinghouse for all elements of a whole-of-society approach to continuous competition. Capabilities that currently sit across Treasury, State, Defense, Intelligence Community, and others are all required to mount a consistent competitive front across economic, informational, technical, and kinetic phases of competition.


The paradigm shift described above along with enabling restructuring of large departments within the US Government will directly challenge established interests with significant constituencies. This shift and these changes will require strong buy-in and leadership from the White House alongside bipartisan leadership from Congress if enabling legislation is to survive attempts to preserve the status quo.

It will also require strong messaging to the American public. A Metcalfe approach to power has always been a critical driver of US strength. The rapid growth of both the volume and velocity of technological change, however, requires a renewal of vows, so to speak, to this approach to power generation. The United States has built its place in the world, and can continue to lead by leveraging the values at the core of our system, values that authoritarian systems cannot exercise. It is time to recognize the cacophony of the democratic system as its biggest strength and as a driver of power in the world.


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March 2022

Date: 2022/06/02

Bangladesh at 50: The Rise of A Bangladesh That Can Say No

By Lailufar Yasmin[*]

Abstract: Bangladesh celebrated its 50 years of independence in 2021. Since October 2020, as Bangladesh’s per capita income increased beyond that of India, it has gained international attention about its success and has become a center of analysis as to why. This article argues that the existing analyses misses the notion that Bangladesh’s internal economic success is very much connected with its foreign policy choices. Gradually, within 50 years of its existence, Bangladesh has also acquired the power to be an agenda-setting nation, at least on regional issues and in terms of making its foreign policy choices. Bangladesh, thus, finds itself at the cusp of geopolitical attention by great powers, not as a country riddled by poverty and aid-dependency but rather as a country filled with possibilities. Therefore, this article argues that Bangladesh’s progress has now allowed for it to prioritize its own national interest by saying ‘no’ where necessary and ‘yes’ where its particular goals and objectives converge.

Keywords: The Bay of Bengal; Bangladesh’s Foreign Policy; Rise of Bangladesh

The rise of Bangladesh is not a surprise but rather a historical continuum. In international media, the issue seems to be a matter worthy of a few columns in 2021. However, the same media highlighted only negative issues emerging from the country. Seldomly did they point out that the Cold War rivalry and reconfiguration of the relationship between the United States and China took place due to Pakistan’s urgency to receive unwavering support from both sides against Bangladesh and its allies, India and former Soviet Union, when Bangladesh was fighting its War of Independence in 1971 (Shelley, 1979; Raghavan, 2013; Small, 2015). The media paid scant attention to the fact that Bangladesh started off with nil Foreign Reserve because the wealth earned exporting its own goods was spent on development projects and beautifications in West Pakistan when it was a part of the cartographical massacre done by colonial rulers (Jahan, 1972; Kabir, 1995). It has remained underexplored that a single country has not been able to achieve what Bangladesh has—in merely 50 years’ time of its existence, from being a war-ravaged and aid-dependent country to emerging as a lender country (Basu, 2021; Alo, 2021; The Indian Express, 2021) and for some, as an “emerging middle power” (Brewster, 2021). This write-up adds one other dynamic missed by scholars and experts on Bangladesh, that the country’s foreign policy trajectory shows how it has learned to say ‘no’ over the years and diplomatically assert its strategic autonomy.

First, I discuss the frenzy, both in academia and in media, to identify how Bangladesh has achieved its current economic success, then I shall move on to explain its diplomatic assertiveness. A country that was often seen as rife with political instability and violence, disaster-prone and unable to provide for its own citizens is now richer than Pakistan and the South Asian giant India (Zaman, 2020). In terms of per capita income, it has surpassed all the other countries in its own region, which has created a backlash in its own neighborhood, but has also caught the attention of extra-regional powers (Babones, 2020; Ganguly, 2020; Mohan, 2021; Pitman, 2021). In times of dire need, it has remembered its constitutional oath of helping anyone in need and thus, stepped forward to lend money to Sri Lanka through the use of a currency swap. Some explanations as to what led to Bangladesh’s astonishing success are provided, but different publications generally identify four particular areas that were pivotal such as the ready-made garments (RMG) sector, Bangladesh’s demographic dividend, its emerging online workforce and knowledge-based economy (Zaman, 2019; Palak, 2020; Yusuf, 2021). Some other writers, amidst Bangladesh’s success, have put a rather negative dent to its reputation by arguing that Bangladesh has been enjoying the quota facilities from the US and Europe, which is behind its phenomenal success. Bangladesh, however, lost its quota advantages that was under the Multi-Fiber Agreement (MFA) back in 1994. So, what are the secrets?

Yes, the many analyses come close to providing a reasonable explanation to Bangladesh’s rise where all of the four indicators will continue to expand for several specific reasons. Bangladesh specializes in different types of RMG products and also entered into the production and export of quality personal protective equipment during the pandemic, the needs of which will not diminish in the near future. Thus, from ‘Made in China’, Bangladesh is heading towards a ‘Made in Bangladesh’ era as a rising manufacturing power (Siu, 2019). The expansion of Bangladesh’s pharmaceutical sector has been phenomenal as well (Ghosh, 2017). Bangladesh is now making vaccines for the Covid-19 virus at home and signed a contract to this effect with China. The demographic dividend, which Bangladesh is to enjoy until at least 2050 tells us that Bangladesh can provide low-skilled and semi-skilled labor in the globalized world. However, it overlooks how Bangladesh is also exploring to export its skilled manpower, specifically in the areas of medical professionals. The number of medical colleges that are established in Bangladesh have been able to create goodwill, which is demonstrated by a number of South Asian countries sending their students to study medicine in the country. For example, the current Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering is one such South Asian student who studied medicine in Bangladesh. The country has thus turned itself into a regional center for disseminating knowledge in the education sector broadly. Bangladesh is also looking to create itself as an IT hub of South Asia and is now the second-largest online labor force supplier in the world. Additionally, the rise of think tanks and their analyses have created the path of a knowledge-based economy for Bangladesh, which will provide long-term sustainability to its economy. In other words, as one Bangladeshi scholar has put it, Bangladesh has not followed a typical Western model of growth; rather borrowing the title of the famous song of Frank Sinatra, Bangladesh ‘has done it in its own way’(Mahmood, 2021).

Economic success is not only a result of its internal elements in the case of Bangladesh. I argue that observers writing on the issue are missing two very intriguing points that have led to Bangladesh’s particular trajectory thus far, its cogent calculations through ‘development diplomacy’ (Yasmin and Atique, 2019) and its ‘port diplomacy’ (Yasmin, 2016a). Bangladesh’s primary objective to further its national security is based on friendship will all and malice to none, which is a foundation laid out by its Founding Father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

In pursuing its development goals, Bangladesh did not pursue the typical path of economic diplomacy but rather pursued establishing a developmental relationship with whoever came forward with a fair deal that would suit Bangladesh’s national interests. Therefore, it has built development relationships not only with China and Japan but has also participated in talks with Persian Gulf countries to further create investment opportunities. Bangladesh has been able to project a unique path for others to learn how ‘growth without enmity’ is possible. It has earned the reputation of being identified as ‘the next Asian Tiger’ (The Daily Star, 2015) to a ‘true Asian tiger’ (The Daily Star, 2019) by scholars and policymakers alike. In terms of the development of its ports, Bangladesh has diversified its options so that it does not remain dependent on any one country in terms of the construction process and its operations. For instance, the way the Chittagong Bay Terminal has been divided into 19 components and that work contracts are given to different countries demonstrates this independence (Port Strategy, 2020; Barua, 2021). Soon, Bangladesh is going to have its first deep seaport at Matarbari, constructed with Japanese assistance (Dhaka Tribune, 2021b). Thus, Bangladesh is identified as a key littoral of the Bay of Bengal region and defines itself as a maritime country, where the access to the Bay has opened up Bangladesh’s choices to the level that it considers the Bay of Bengal as its third neighbor. Bangladesh is redefining the concept of a land-based neighborhood by highlighting the geopolitical significance of an adjacent maritime domain and, therefore, harnessing the geopolitical advantage of the bay (Alam, 2021). Bangladesh’s geopolitical location, once considered as land-locked, has now turned into a blessing (Zaman, 2017).

Bangladesh has learned not to put all its eggs in one basket, and all these examples are a testament to this. Bangladesh’s economic success is not a surprise, instead it has been in the making for decades through a continuation of pragmatic policies over the years. Bangladesh’s model of micro-credit, women’s empowerment, reducing maternal and pre-natal death, and promoting children’s education, especially girls’ education, are emulated worldwide. In these cases, both the public sector and private sectors worked hand in hand despite some arguing otherwise (Hossain, 2017; Tripathi, 2021; Mahmood, 2021). The immunization program of Bangladesh and its success are noted worldwide. Additionally, so are its innovations of creating domestic solutions for climate refugees and inventing local solutions to cultivation despite a rise in water salinity. Bangladesh, with its lynchpin location at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal has been able to draw attention in such a manner where India, China and other great powers prefer to be its development partner (Yasmin, 2016b; Yasmin, 2019). A country with a market of 160 million people is not a small country but rather stands by its own right to be considered as an emerging middle power.

Bangladesh’s diplomatic assertiveness in recent years can be seen originating with saying ‘no’ to the United Kingdom’s request to recognize Ms. Shamima Begum, born and brought up in UK to Bangladeshi parents, as a Bangladeshi citizen. Bangladesh held its ground and watched the matter unfold but did not cave to the UK request. A number of other examples happened in 2021, the Year of Fifty for Bangladesh. The country declined to endorse a United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that condemned the military junta in Myanmar but did not include concerns for Rohingyas. Bangladesh’s move is called as an “astute move” as well as a reflection of the country’s success by hosting the Rohingyas on humanitarian ground that must be internationally recognized (Billah, 2021).

Bangladesh clearly showed its reservation to be formally a part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS), when an offer was made to Bangladesh by the United States (US) Deputy Secretary of State Stephan Biegun (Palma, 2020; Dhaka Tribune, 2021a). Bangladesh is prepared to work with any countries of the world at the bilateral level and through multilateral forums, as long as it is not directed against any specific country and not a formal security alliance. To this end, Bangladesh joined two China-led initiatives such as the China-South Asian Countries Poverty Alleviation and Cooperative Development Center and the China-South Asia Emergency Supply Reserve for ensuring its own national interest (Islam, 2021). When these initiatives were termed as anti-India forums, Bangladesh has rather offered India to join the forums to learn the true intentions of the initiatives, which is cooperative growth for the members. Similarly, Bangladesh is set to join Colombo Security Conclave in 2021, which is to work on non-traditional issues emerging in the Indian Ocean region (Rajagopalan, 2021).

These examples show that Bangladesh has achieved the maturity required to make cogent and informed calculations based on its national interest. This provides Bangladesh the assertiveness to say ‘no’ but also to understand and accommodate a ‘yes’ if that suits its interest and overall goals of emerging as a developed country by 2041. In other words, it may take some years for Bangladesh to emerge as a robust agenda-setter in international politics, but in the issues that affect its national interest, Bangladesh is increasingly showing its assertiveness and agenda-setting capacity in accordance with its national interest in the regional context. As the Bay of Bengal and, by extension, the Indo-Pacific region is at the center of geopolitical attention, Bangladesh has emerged as a country that no longer can be ignored in the policymaking of the great powers. While dealing with Bangladesh, the rest of the world should pay attention to the changes that are occurring in terms of Bangladesh rising and its ability to decide for itself. It is no longer at the receiving end of any deal, but rather can bargain and set its own terms and conditions.

There is, however, one fly in the ointment. Generally, it is mostly the foreign scholars and Bangladeshi scholars living abroad who write on the spectacular rise of Bangladesh. Very few scholars from within Bangladesh are writing about Bangladesh’s economic miracle and diplomatic successes. Bangladeshi scholars have seen the country struggling in the 1970s, 1980s and in 1990s. The phenomenal transformation happening all around is yet to be widely recognized in the Bangladeshi scholarly circle because of their practical experiences of treading through the murky water. Rather a very cautious step is being pursued like a 19th Century Bengali poetry goes—

Aponare boro bole, boro shei noi;
lok e jare boro bole, boro shei hoi.

The innate meaning of the poetry is modesty, that one should not beat his own drum, but let others speak of your success story. Self-assertiveness is seen as bombastic and compared to an empty shell making big noises. Therefore, we look forward to the admission of foreigners to recognize that Bangladesh is an emerging middle power. Time has come to talk about facts on the ground, and Bangladesh is taking a step forward to highlight its own success. Of course, there might be hiccups in the journey and black swan events such as the Covid-19 Pandemic, which we must be able to recognize and prepare accordingly, but mostly Bangladesh is set to be rising amidst such hiccups. A ‘Bangladesh Model’ has emerged (Mahmood, 2021; Ghosh, 2021) as quite an exception to the Western or the Eastern model. This is difficult for many to comprehend and has therefore created skepticism. Bangladesh’s story will not reflect a comprehensive view as long as it is written by others, just like the often-cited African saying, “Until the lion learns to write, stories will glorify the hunter.” In this case, the Bengal Tigers must come forward with their own stories.


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Mohan, C.R. (2021) “50 Years After Independence, Bangladesh Bursts Into Geopolitics”. Foreign Policy, March 25. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/25/bangladesh-independence-anniversary-geopolitics-india-china-pakistan-indo-pacific-quad/.

Palak, J.A. (2020) “How digital inclusion made Bangladesh a standout South Asian economy”. World Economic Forum (WEF), February 26. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/digital-inclusion-made-bangladesh-stand-out/.

Palma, P. (2020) “Indo-Pacific strategy: US wants Dhaka on its side”. The Daily Star,  October 17.

Pitman, A. (2021) “How Indian media reporting on Bangladesh is distorted by bad faith”. Scroll.in, June 28. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/997714/how-indian-media-reporting-on-bangladesh-is-distorted-by-bad-faith.

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Raghavan, S. (2013) 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press.

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Shelley, M.R. (1979) Emergence of a new nation in a multi-polar world: Bangladesh. Dhaka: The University Press Limited.

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[*] Lailufar Yasmin, Ph.D., is a Professor at the Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She can be reached at lyasmin@du.ac.bd. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of DKI APCSS, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of DKI APCSS, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

January 2022


Date: 2022/01/06

Policy recommendations for combatting overfishing and fisheries crime

By Canyon D, Allen E, Long M, Brown C [*]


Like all natural resources on Earth, fish are finite. While aquaculture now supplies about half of the fish caught annually, and while estimates of amounts being fished vary widely, data suggest that, globally, over one-third of fish stocks are harvested beyond biologically sustainable limits. The problem of overfishing is rapidly getting worse as the mass of captured fish increased four-fold over the past six decades, particularly in tropical oceans. Trends indicate a non-sustainable trajectory for fish populations, worldwide, with increases in per capita fish consumption outstripping human population growth. In 2018 (the most recent year for which data are available), about 156 million tons of fish, 20.5 kg per person, were consumed by people, with another 22 million tons used for products such as fishmeal and fish oil. About 70% of the fish taken were from the Indo-Pacific.

Nearly half of the world’s population consumes 20% of their animal protein from fish. Thus overfishing, with the attendant risk of sudden fish population collapse, as happened on the Grand Banks in the North Atlantic with cod, has critical food security implications. Beyond the impact on fish populations and possibly on human nutrition, some types of fishing, such as deep-sea bottom trawling, are environmentally unsustainable as they damage fragile habitats containing unique biodiversity including millenary deep-sea corals.

This paper explores the perpetrators of overfishing, the role of fisheries crime in overfishing, efforts to combat overfishing including legal frameworks, approaches of the US and its partners, and international security cooperation on fishing subsidies, and provides seventeen policy recommendations.

 Who is overfishing?

Figure 1: National shares of marine captures

A relatively small number of countries are responsible for much of the global fishing (Figure 1). Recent technological developments in machine learning and satellite data now provide a novel method to examine fish populations and fisheries that allows a far more accurate determination of fishing effort across the globe at the level of individual vessels than was possible a few years ago. Until very recently, the global make-up of fishing fleets was largely unknown, but new technologies, using the Global Fishing Watch (GFW) database, which uses automatic identification systems (AIS) and vessel monitoring systems (VMS) can track individual vessel behavior, fishing activity, and other characteristics in near real-time. These tools now enable detailed analyses of issues such as the economic rationality of fishing over vast swathes of Earth’s surface, and can allow addressing of the key question of whether government subsidies enable current levels of fishing.

AIS databanks show that in both national waters and on the high seas, most fishing effort is conducted by vessels flagged to higher-income nations with 86% attributed to China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Spain, in rank order, and only 3% attributed to lower-income nations. Most fishing activity takes place in the Pacific (61%), the Atlantic (24%), and the Indian Oceans (14%).  The mismatch evident between reported marine captures shown in Figure 1 and the ranked order of fishing effort, for all nations but China, are testimony to the extent that accurate fishing data are not yet available and there are many non-transparent, illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing activities.

As evidence of the incredible inequities in the fishing business, vessels flagged by high-income foreign countries were not only dominant in their own exclusive economic zones (EEZs), but also in the EEZs of lower-income nations where they captured the majority of fish to the detriment of local fishing industries. As local fish catches fall below economic viability due to these foreign fishing vessels, maritime crime can increase as fishers turn to piracy and smuggling to survive.

Fishing Crime

The AIS and VMS technologies have only been able to identify corporations responsible for 61.5% of fishing effort due to 20% of ships on the high seas being unequipped with AIS and the rest turning off their AIS. It is believed that some monitored vessels, but particularly these unmonitored vessels engage in IUU fishing methods, which represent a threat to national and global security as they account for significant economic loss, weaken national sovereignty, and destroy a precious limited global resource. One in five fish caught may originate from IUU fishing. US Coast Guard Commandant ADM Karl Schultz said, “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal states and increased tension among foreign-fishing nations, threatening geopolitical stability around the world.”

Overfishing does not always equate to IUU fishing; however, IUU fishing is a significant contributing factor to overfishing and the depletion of global fish stocks. Illegal fishing using prohibited methods or equipment typically results in excessive bycatch through non-selective means, upsetting the fragile ecological balance. Fish illegally caught in protected areas or in another nation’s EEZ undermine regional and national management efforts in sustainability. Unreported fishing can include failing to report, misreporting, or under-reporting practices; all of these result in flawed data that prevent informed decision-making by management authorities when determining catch/size limits and the amount of fishing licenses issued. Unregulated fishing refers to vessels without nationality, areas not covered under existing national or Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) management measures, and species with insufficient regulatory oversight that may be subject to exploitation.

The world’s dependence on fish as a vital protein source is an incentive for the global community to monitor and ensure robust fish stocks as a matter of food security. Unfortunately, from 1974 to 2017, the percentage of fish stocks within biologically sustainable limits dropped from 90% to 65.8%. Conversely, the world’s human population continued to increase, placing additional pressure on stressed fish stocks. While aquaculture is alleviating some of the demand on wild-caught fish, proper national and regional fisheries management is vital to ensure that sustainable policies are implemented and enforced appropriately to prevent overfishing.

Combatting Overfishing with Legal Frameworks

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) presents a structure for fisheries governance by distinguishing between state-managed fisheries within the 200 nautical mile EEZ and fisheries outside the EEZ on the high seas. It provides for migratory fish, such as tuna, that travel between different EEZs and high seas, fish that straddle the EEZs and the high seas, and fish, such as eels and salmon, that migrate between the sea and freshwater. Lastly, it requires countries to cooperate with one another to conserve and manage fish in the high seas.

Modern fishery governance is characterized by guiding principles, and policy and regulatory frameworks that connect government with corporate actors. Fishery governance includes national policies and legislation or international treaties as well as customary social arrangements. At the international level, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is the “only source of global fisheries and aquaculture statistics.” This repository is informed by the collection and analysis of how nations engage in responsible and sustainable fisheries management around the world.

The UN Fish Stocks Agreement goes further than UNCLOS by increasing cooperative action in the management of fisheries resources. It advises nations on how they should manage highly migratory fish stocks in cooperation with each other, and highlights the importance of RFMOs.

RFMOs are international organizations that typically focus on the sustainable management of all fishery resources or a particular species within a specific area. RFMOs provide information on corporate actors; however, their data are often incomplete or inaccessible in that they register shell companies that obscure corporate actors, they do not all make vessel ownership available, and/or they do not publish public vessel registries.

Within the Indo-Pacific, there are nine RFMOs.

  1. Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC)
  2. Indian Ocean South East Asian Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding (IOSEA)
  3. Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP)
  4. Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)
  5. North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission (NPAFC)
  6. Convention on the Conservation and Management of Pollock Resources in the Central Bering Sea
  7. Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC)
  8. Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC)
  9. International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC)

Given that global fish stocks are in a rapidly deteriorating condition, these fisheries governance structures are clearly failing in their objectives and require attention. For instance, only ten of the 17 RFMOs that cover high seas globally have carriage requirements for an onboard observer, and only one has a ban on transshipment; a practice that obscures the source of a significant portion of illegal and unreported fishing activity and provides a pathway for illegally caught fish to enter the global seafood market. It may be that onboard observer requirements are not being pursued since they are a widely corrupted monitoring mechanism.

Combatting Overfishing – Approaches of the US and Partners

In the United States, the US Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are two federal agencies at the forefront of combatting IUU fishing, with the US Coast Guard having the lead for at-sea enforcement of living marine resource laws.

In addition to protecting US sovereign waters from overfishing, the US recognizes that a global approach is needed to effectively combat the transnational nature of IUU fishing.  As such, the US Coast Guard and NOAA are both involved in a constellation of international counter-IUU fishing operations and partnerships.  These include:

  • Pacific Quadrilateral Defense Coordinating Group (Pacific QUAD).  The US Coast Guard serves as the US Indo-Pacific Command representative to the Pacific QUAD, a collaborative effort with Australia, France, and New Zealand aimed at coordinating and strengthening maritime security in the South Pacific.  Pacific QUAD efforts to combat overfishing include joint patrols to ensure compliance with international fisheries agreements.
  • Operation North Pacific Guard.  This is a multilateral enforcement operation in partnership with Canada, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia to tackle all IUU fishing threats in the North Pacific Ocean.
  • Shiprider Agreements.  The US Coast Guard partners with Pacific Island Nations through bilateral agreements known as Shiprider Agreements.  These allow partners nations to enforce their own domestic laws by having their law enforcement officials onboard a US Coast Guard vessel or alongside their boarding team.
  • Port State Measurements Agreement (PSMA).  The United Nations enacted the PSMA to prevent IUU fishing through the adoption and implementation of effective port state measures to help ensure the long-term conservation and sustainable use of living marine resources.
  • NOAA serves as the lead agency for enforcing PSMA in the United States and its Territories, which includes setting standards for exercising port state controls over foreign-flagged vessels seeking entry into US ports and over those vessels’ activities while in port.  Through information sharing, vessels on IUU lists are identified and prevented from offloading illegally caught catch in ports, thereby increasing the costs of IUU fishing through diminished demand.
  • Counter IUU-Fishing Capacity Building.  Through various technical assistance and training workshops, NOAA provides foreign organizations governments, organizations, and communities with the tools, resources, and information sharing avenues to allow them to address complex IUU fishing issues.

Foreign partners and organizations recognize that IUU fishing poses pervasive security, economic, and environmental threats to national and regional interests and have taken a series of actions to counter this predatory and irresponsible behavior. For example, Australia enacted their Pacific Maritime Security Program to provide patrol vessels and aerial surveillance assets to a number of Pacific Island countries.  These assets allow these Pacific Island countries to locate and stop illegal activity within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and adjacent high seas through increased maritime domain awareness.

In addition, 18 member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum ratified the Boe Declaration, which affirms climate change as the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security, and wellbeing of Pacific Islanders.  Recognizing the deleterious effects of climate change on fish stocks and food security, the Boe Declaration’s Action Plan includes strengthening efforts to combat IUU fishing through enhanced monitoring and surveillance capabilities.

Finally, the United Nations, in addition to enacting the PSMA, formulated a series of international agreements to address the responsible management of fisheries to include the Fish Stocks Agreement, Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and Voluntary Guidelines for Catch Documentation Schemes.

Combatting Overfishing with International Security Cooperation

The 1982 UNCLOS agreement did not include provisions to protect deep-sea fishing because it was expected to remain uneconomical. However, new harvesting technologies and national subsidies have combined to result in the unsustainable exploitation of this vulnerable environment. Technologies, such as machine learning and satellite data via GFW and AIS, also have a positive effect as they begin to shed light on the hitherto unknown details and economics of high-seas fishing activities.

In an analysis of the profitability of high-seas fishing from 2014 data, six countries (China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Spain, and South Korea) accounted for 77% of the global high-seas fishing effort. The study examined vessel-level data on ship length, tonnage, engine power, gear, flag state, trip-level fishing and transit tracks, speed, and other factors that affect the costs of fishing. This data was matched with the total fisheries catch from the high seas and its landed value in US$. Five of the above countries accounted for 64% of the global high-seas fishing revenue: China (21%), Taiwan (13%), Japan (11%), South Korea (11%), and Spain (8%).

Based on these numbers, researchers estimated that high-seas fishing profits (without accounting for subsidies) ranged between −$364 million and +$1.4 billion with most negative returns accruing from China, Taiwan, and Russia. Thus, fishing operations by those countries were not viable and were only in existence because government subsidies, estimated at $4.2 billion, far exceeded any net economic benefits of high-seas fishing. A more recent study in 2018 estimated that 54% of current high-seas fishing activities were not economically viable without government subsidies.

Subsidies are used by governments to reduce the cost of fishing and keep the industry viable; however, they are leading to overfishing caused by overcapacity. Eliminating fishing subsidies would almost eliminate high-seas overfishing and prompt multinational commitments (e.g. Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the Sustainable Development Goals) to address capacity-enhancing subsidies.

Fishing subsidies come in three categories: Ambiguous – assistance, community development, vessel buybacks; Beneficial – research, management, and protection; and Capacity-Enhancing – boat building, fisheries development, fishing access, fishing port development, fuel, marketing, storage, tax exemptions. Fuel subsidies, tax exemptions, and fisheries management are the largest type of fishing subsidies by far.

Asian governments pay the most subsidies to the private sector at 55% of the total ($35.4 billion in 2018) and of all nations, China pays the highest subsidies at 21% of the total followed by the US at 10% and South Korea at 9%. However, the US spends a majority of its subsidies on beneficial areas while China spends almost all of its subsidies on unsustainable and unprofitable capacity-enhancing areas.

The World Trade Organization has been thinking about, but taking no action on fishing subsidies since the Doha Development Agenda was launched in 2001. World leaders have turned in expectation to the WTO to set international rules that reduce unsustainable fishing subsidies as it is perhaps the only agency that can develop and enforce such global agreements. In 2015, trade ministers agreed to conclude a fisheries subsidies agreement by 2020 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals; however, the Covid pandemic delayed this action.

In the forthcoming 12th Ministerial Conference WTO meeting in late 2021, an agreement will be sought to govern fishing subsidies to make fishing more sustainable, eliminating IUU in the high-seas, and prohibiting subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing. One of the most difficult issues has been how to preserve the overall objective of ocean sustainability while not impacting the livelihoods and food security of poor and vulnerable artisanal fishers in developing and least developing country WTO members.

Policy Recommendations

Fisheries management

  1. Simplify fisheries management – contradictory directives from the various agencies involved in fisheries management, and the lack of communication among them, place a burden on monitoring and enforcement that impacts compliance. Fisheries approaches are best integrated into broader planning and governance frameworks to reduce the problems of acting in isolation.
  2. Reduce gaps in geospatial management – Marine Protected Areas, fishing closures, and RFMOs that manage bottom fisheries and species other than tuna provide incomplete spatial coverage, however, tuna coverage is fairly complete.
  3. Holistic assessment of sustainability – as fisheries are increasingly overfished, monitoring must be upgraded to include ecosystem indicators that assess diversity in species and habitats that are essential to maintain ecosystem services.
  4. Improved information – knowledge of the oceans and of fisheries activities are both fundamental to making critical decisions that aim to balance exploitation with sustainability. Transparency is required to increase accountability and ensure that fisheries industries uphold sustainable conservation objectives.

Fisheries Politics

  1. Identify and prioritize information that is useful for managers and policy-makers, for this underpins international collaboration and decisions on how funding is directed. Improving success in this endeavor requires fisheries policy and management decisions to be inclusive, evidence-based, and considerate of local and traditional knowledge.
  2. Improve maritime domain awareness in governments and general populations to increase public support and government ownership of the fisheries agenda, and political will to improve implementation of existing policy frameworks, and support policy innovation for emerging challenges.
  3. Non-traditional maritime security is a cooperative endeavor designed to reduce or eliminate maritime contingencies. Security cooperation through bilateral and multilateral agreements is the best way to combat non-traditional maritime threats, especially for smaller nations with limited resources.

Fisheries Protection

  1. Reduce gaps in protection – update international triggers for action to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems against harmful human activities such as pelagic fishing and seabed mining.
  2. Persist in efforts to control IUU fishing by working towards the ratification and implementation of the PSMA by all flag, port, coastal, and market States.
  3. Standup national Maritime Fusion Centers capable of making sense of MDA data on drug and human trafficking, fisheries crime, incidents at sea, and environmental hazards, and that is capable of fusing this information to create new intelligence for enforcement agencies and policymakers.
  4. Encourage other nations to consider pursuing collaborative Shiprider agreements with other like-minded partners and allies to protect fisheries and strengthen regional stability.
  5. Require the International Maritime Organization to evaluate changes to AIS carriage requirements to include vessels smaller than the 300 G.T. threshold on international voyages and 500 G.T. threshold on domestic voyages. Alternatively, standardize VMS carriage requirements at a higher level than the current national/regional requirements that vary on vessel size and equipment standards.

Fisheries Finances and Work Practices

  1. Move noble statements, such as the definition of Blue Economy by the World Bank from an unrealized and ignored ideal to reality through enforceable international agreements.
  2. Ensure livelihoods, wellbeing, and quality work are guaranteed in the fisheries sector through appropriate governance and management that involves stakeholders, secures human rights, promotes gender equity, and improves access.
  3. Implement the small-scale fisheries (SSF) guidelines to improve policies, information, communication, capacity, and support for SSF actors. This includes increasing financial support for this sector to improve fisheries management in the context of the blue economy.
  4. Increase international pressure on the WTO to eliminate capacity-enhancing subsidies and port-networks that support unsustainable fisheries practices to preserve a natural resource for people who depend on seafood for their nutrition and livelihoods.
  5. Redirect public funds that are spent on capacity-enhancement subsidies that compound resource-exploitation problems to beneficial subsidies that promote resource conservation and improved management, or to increase economic opportunities in other industries for residents of fishing communities.

[*] Dr. Canyon, Dr. Allen, Capt. Long, and Lt. Cmdr. Brown 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. October 2021

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Date: 2021/10/22

Vaccinate the Pacific!

By Kevin E. Lunday*


The United States is a Pacific nation.  By its history, geography, and shared culture with other Pacific islanders, the United States is an integral member of the community of nations that make up Oceania.[1]  U.S. leadership in Oceania remains vital during the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, especially as the Delta variant spreads and a resurgence of COVID-19 among unvaccinated populations threatens a prolonged crisis of disproportionate impact in the region.[2]  As the United States seeks to strengthen its commitment to global vaccination efforts, it should place immediate emphasis on increasing vaccine delivery and administration, supported by broader health aid and investment, to the Pacific islands throughout Oceania.

Expanding and accelerating U.S. development aid could have a significant impact on improving response to the ongoing crisis and preventing retreat on development progress.  This is not simply about advancing U.S. interests in competition with Beijing’s efforts to provide vaccine and health aid, although today everything is filtered through the lens of strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.  This is about meeting U.S. responsibility as a Pacific nation.

In the face of a worsening pandemic, coupled with enduring security challenges for Pacific Island nations,[3] U.S. strategic leadership is needed to ensure governance, security, and stability in a region that includes the United States.

Covid-19 in the Indo-Pacific

The pandemic’s effects in the Pacific islands, in terms of deaths and hospitalizations, was significantly mitigated until recently by aggressive government quarantine and containment measures, including severe travel restrictions.  These emergency measures, which brought major economic burdens because they restricted travel, tourism, and trade, were largely successful until mid-2021 in preventing potentially catastrophic, widespread community transmission as governments moved to distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccines starting at the end of 2020.

There is growing consensus now, however, that these severe travel restrictions are not economically sustainable over the long-term.  Any herd immunity is elusive in the face of viral variants and lagging vaccine rates in most Pacific Island nations.  Recently, the accelerated spread of the Delta variant in the Pacific, with much higher transmissibility rates, threatens to prolong and worsen the crisis by increasing the risk of hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated.[4]

Vaccine Diplomacy

Widespread, sustained, and aggressive vaccination among the peoples of Pacific island nations, supplemented by mitigation measures, is the way these peoples and governments will endure and eventually emerge from the crisis.  They cannot do it alone.  Achieving this goal requires significant support from major allies to aid in supplying governments with safe and effective vaccines, overcoming challenges to logistics, reaching remote and distributed populations, supporting limited medical infrastructure, and overcoming significant vaccine hesitancy.[5]

The United States was quick to begin the delivery and administration of vaccines in Oceania.  As soon as vaccines were made available and approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2020, the U.S. prioritized among its early efforts the vaccination of Americans in the State of Hawai’i and the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.[6]  In January 2021, honoring the special defense and security relationship with the three States in Free Association (“Compact States”), the U.S. began delivery of vaccines to Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).[7]

In June 2021, the President announced the U.S. commitment to global vaccination efforts, pledging 80 million doses through the COVAX program under the World Health Organization (WHO) arm of the United Nations, with part of 16 million doses donated to Asia that would include the Pacific Islands.[8]  Several weeks earlier, at the Pacific Island Leaders Conference at the East-West Center in Honolulu, the U.S. Secretary of State said the U.S. was committed to assisting Pacific communities to recover from the pandemic, both through vaccine donations and helping devastated island economies rebuild in a way that is sustainable and inclusive.[9]

More recently in August 2021, the President spoke in a recorded video address to the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) Leaders Meeting in which he said the United States would donate “half a billion” Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine doses to the COVAX international vaccine sharing program and that some of that donation will flow to the Pacific.[10]  The President also told the PIF Leaders Meeting that the United States was “not attaching any conditions or strings to these doses – this is about saving lives.”[11]

The United States is providing other health aid to Pacific Island nations during the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment and supplies, strengthening laboratory systems, activating case-finding and event-based surveillance, and providing technical experts for COVID-19 response and preparedness.[12]  U.S. allies Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and France, have their own vaccine programs to assist Pacific Island nations, both through COVAX and existing bilateral aid programs, as well as providing other health aid.[13]

Four Ways to Stronger Regional Leadership

The Pacific Island nations need reliable allies, especially in crisis.  The U.S. has signaled that it intends to take more than a transactional approach to global vaccinations and that it will meet the challenge to be a global strategic leader in combating the pandemic.[14]  As such, U.S. leadership in Oceania must be clear, persistent, and enduring.

Acknowledging that the U.S. actions over the past 150 years both in the Pacific and with its peoples have at times been complicated and even controversial, it has also been a history of protection and liberation from oppression by coercive and conquering powers dating back to World War II.  Moreover, the increasing diversity of the U.S. population remains one of the United States’ greatest and most unique strategic strengths.  Today, the Americans who are Pacific islanders by residence, birth, or cultural ties (Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians) are essential to that vibrant strength.

  1. Establish a small interagency Federal task force (E.g., Pacific Islands Health Task Force)

First, the United States should immediately establish a Pacific Islands Health Task Force to unify and coordinate Federal government efforts from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Departments of State and Defense (and include coordination of efforts from Departments of Interior, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs for the U.S. territories and Compact States).  This would position the executive branch to focus leadership and resources on vaccination and other health aid, while enabling more effective oversight and assessment of efforts.

The Pacific Islands Health Task Force would be led by an experienced U.S. diplomat and seconded jointly by a senior USAID official and detailed senior U.S. military officer, and would report to the USAID Administrator.  The task force would be staffed with a small group of select experts in pandemic response, public health, and international development, and would leverage the National Security Council to ensure unified effort across cognizant Federal departments and agencies.

  1. Adopt more ambitious vaccine targets with Pacific Island nations
    Next, the United States should build on existing international vaccine sharing commitments by setting and filling more ambitious bilateral vaccine allocation, delivery, and deployment targets with each of the Pacific Island nations, starting with the Compact States.  U.S. vaccine targets should aspire to achieve a 75% population vaccination rate in the host-nation, depending on host-nation government targets and timelines.  U.S. vaccine targets and sharing should continue to be planned in coordination with efforts of other major regional allies (Australia, New Zealand, France, and Japan) and recognize planned COVAX vaccine distributions.
  1. Rapidly deploy Health Emergency Action Response Teams (HEART) to the Pacific
    Third, the United States should rapidly form special mobile medical teams comprised of civilian, private sector, and military healthcare professionals, logisticians, and key support technicians to deploy in support of Pacific Island governments and healthcare workers to deliver and administer vaccines.  HEART teams, organized and directed to deploy by the Pacific Island Health Task Force, would operate under the direction of the U.S. embassy and in coordination with the regional USAID officer and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.HEART teams would integrate with and support host-nation healthcare teams.  Recognizing the significant challenges to U.S. domestic healthcare workforce capacity, the U.S. government needs to leverage other sources to create these deployable mobile medical teams.  Sourcing should include military medical personnel from each of the U.S. armed forces that operate in the Pacific (including the U.S. Coast Guard), public health officers from the Federal government, allied military medical personnel from the Australian Defence Force and New Zealand Defence Force, and medical personnel from private-sector and non-governmental organizations.Additionally, the teams should include U.S. National Guard medical personnel for those Pacific Island nations assigned to National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program (i.e., Wisconsin National Guard for Papua New Guinea, Nevada National Guard for Fiji and Tonga).  When possible, mobile military medical teams should include U.S. members who are Pacific islanders.

    The deployable mobile military teams could also leverage the Department of Defense for transportation, logistics, and support, resourced by USAID and the Department of State programs.  Beyond vaccinations, the mobile medical teams, working with the U.S. embassy and host-nation government, could identify and assess opportunities for additional health assistance and development aid related to health security for follow-on action.

  1. Increase health diplomacy engagement with Pacific Island people
    Fourth, the U.S. government should increase public diplomacy and global engagement efforts to advance education and understanding of health prevention and vaccination among Pacific island peoples, while combating foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation aimed at undermining U.S. vaccination and health aid efforts.The highly competitive information environment has become more so in the pandemic, and the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns and other public health efforts depends on the ability to effectively and persistently communicate accurate information across the information spectrum while addressing malign efforts to use the information environment to undermine U.S. efforts and policies.[15]  This is especially important to combat disinformation that undermines confidence in the proven safety and efficacy of U.S.-provided vaccines.

These actions, necessary in the near term, must be reinforced by broader, persistent U.S. investment in diplomacy, foreign aid, and security assistance for Pacific island nations, as described in the U.S. Interim National Security Strategy.[16]  There have been policy and legislative initiatives in this area, but they have yet to gain sufficient traction.  For example, the Boosting Long Term Engagement in the Pacific (BLUE Pacific), H.R. 7797,[17] would increase U.S. diplomatic presence throughout Oceania; encourage full U.S. participation in regional governance forums; and authorize $1B in economic development and assistance.  Policy experts have suggested similar expansions of U.S. commitment to Oceania, urging, for example, that the U.S. offer new special defense and security bilateral agreements, similar to the existing Compacts of Free Association (with Palau, FSM, and RMI), to smaller Pacific Island nations.[18]


Need for Responsible State Behavior by Others

There is another actor involved in efforts to vaccinate in the region whose recurring use of coercive economic and development aid to further its own interests signals that its vaccine distribution efforts are transactional, typically with strings attached.[19]  Efforts by the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) to produce and distribute vaccines globally as part of their planned “health diplomacy” are still gaining momentum, hampered by a diminished vaccine efficacy relative to other, available vaccines.[20]

Yet the PRC continues to scale up international vaccine deployment, including to Pacific Island states (E.g., Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati) where a gap exists and it has significant political and diplomatic interests.[21]  The international community, including the United States, needs China to be successful with vaccine production and distribution for its own population, and to responsibly participate in global vaccine efforts.  However, the U.S. must continue to call out Beijing if it attempts to leverage or weaponize vaccine distribution as it has done coercively with other prior foreign assistance under its One Belt, One Road initiative.[22]


The U.S. should immediately increase targeted vaccinations, other health assistance, and development aid to the Pacific islands, employing a unified, focused Federal response that leverages the interagency and allies for leadership, diplomacy, coordination, medical aid, and communications.

COVID-19 is not the only crisis facing Pacific island nations; it is just the most immediate and pressing one.  Oceania also faces longer-term challenges with rising sea levels due to climate change that threaten diminishing inhabitable land; overharvesting of precious fish stocks due to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by distant water fishing fleets; and foreign malign influence that threatens governance and regional stability.

Continued U.S. leadership is needed to address these challenges, which are also significant challenges for the U.S.  But first, the U.S. must address the most immediate crisis of the pandemic.  The elevation of public health, global health engagement, and health security to pivotal national and regional security priorities is one way of doing this.  As a Pacific nation whose identity as a people is bound to others in Oceania, leadership and action now is a clear imperative.

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. September 2021

*Rear Admiral Kevin E. Lunday, U.S. Coast Guard. 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] Oceania consists of the central and southern Pacific Ocean, comprising Polynesia (including Hawaii), Melanesia, Micronesia, Australia, and New Zealand.  Oceania includes Guam, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the Compact of Free Association (COFA) states Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Marshall Islands.

[2] COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 9 September – Policy Forum.

[3] Boe Declaration on Regional Security – Forum Sec.

[4] COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 9 September – Policy Forum.

[5] In some states, such as Papua New Guineau, there is longstanding suspicion of vaccines in certain areas, made worse by the spread of disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.  Health workers face death threats as COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy takes hold in PNG – ABC News; Curb the Infodemic: Vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and confusion – ABC International Development.

[6] News Releases from Department of Health | Thousands of COVID-19 Vaccines Arrive (hawaii.gov); 7,000 vaccines arriving | Guam News | postguam.com; American Samoa starts Covid-19 vaccinations | RNZ News.  In addition to vaccines, the United States government passed the American Rescue Plan Act, which provided between approximately $450- $500 million in pandemic-related relief to each U.S. territory, depending on the population of the territory.  The American Rescue Plan Act, Section 9901—The Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund (congress.gov).

[7] U.S. ships COVID-19 vaccines to Pacific island nations | ShareAmerica.

[8] FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Announces Allocation Plan for 55 Million Doses to be Shared Globally | The White House

Statement by President Joe Biden on Global Vaccine Distribution | The White House

[9] Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders Concludes First Day of Virtual Meeting – Pacific Islands Development Program (eastwestcenter.org)

[10] Biden Pledges ‘No Strings’ Pacific Pandemic Support | World News | US News

[11] Id.

[12] The_Pacific_Islands_Fact_Sheet_on_COVID-19_Assistance_-_final_Aug_2020.pdf (usaid.gov).

[13] Australian support for COVID-19 vaccine access in the Pacific and Southeast Asia | Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security (dfat.gov.au); NZ ready to provide $75m for Pacific and global COVID-19 vaccination support | Unite against COVID-19 (covid19.govt.nz).

[14] Biden to Call for Summit on Global COVID Vaccine Supplies | Voice of America – English (voanews.com).

[15] Global Engagement Center – United States Department of State.

[16] NSC-1v2.pdf (whitehouse.gov).

[17] See Text – H.R.7797 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): BLUE Pacific Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress

[18] See.  How the US Can Protect the Sovereignty of the Smallest Pacific Islands – The Diplomat

[19] Blinken denounces China’s ‘strings attached’ vaccine diplomacy – Nikkei Asia.

[20] China’s Vaccine Diplomacy Stumbles in Southeast Asia – The New York Times (nytimes.com).

[21] China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine launches in the Pacific – ABC News.

[22] China Is Weaponizing the Belt and Road. What Can the US Do About It? – The Diplomat.

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Date: 2021/10/05

China’s Gray Zone Operations in the Yellow Sea

By Chungjin Jung *


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) elected a new leader, Xi Jinping, at the 18th Chinese Community Party Congress in 2012 and adopted a new national development strategy goal of ‘building a maritime power.’[1]   PRC then declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea (ECS) in 2013 and created artificial islands from reefs in the South China Sea (SCS) in 2014 to expand maritime rights to those seas. Similar activities have developed in multiple forms over the past decade. Military experts name these PRC’s gray-zone operations/activities and have studied their characteristics.

The gray zone is an operational space between peace and war, involving coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response, often by blurring the line between military and nonmilitary actions and the attribution for events. (RAND)

The U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard released a new strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power, in Dec. 2020 in which it says, “Today, PRC employ all instruments of their national power to undermine and remake the international system to serve their interests. Each conducts various malign activities incrementally, attempting to achieve their objectives without triggering a military response. It backs its revisionist activities with regionally powerful militaries and obscures their aggressive behavior by mixing military and paramilitary forces with proxies. China’s attempts to control natural marine resources and restrict access to the oceans have negative repercussions for all nations.” Further, the three services say, “they need to begin acting more assertively to push back against gray-zone operations China is already conducting today.” Their strategy emphasized integrated all-domain naval power, strengthened alliances and partnerships, and a modernized future force to defend national interests.

Due to China’s aggressive behavior and intransigent responses to its neighboring countries and the United States, security experts worldwide focus considerable attention on the ECS and SCS. On the other hand, the waters of the Yellow Sea (Korea calls it the West Sea), the region where PRC’s North Sea Fleet patrols, are relatively quiet. That is because China has not yet vehemently claimed its national interest in the Yellow Sea.

However, there is a potential conflict between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the PRC over the Yellow Sea. The reason is that the maritime border separating the two countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ) is not clearly defined. Given China’s recent firm and uncompromising stance on maritime sovereignty and rights, it is unclear what offensive actions China will take against Korea in the future.

ROK-PRC maritime boundary talks

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) took effect in 1994, and the concept of an EEZ of 200 nautical miles emerged. Korea and China have been in working-level contact for the Yellow Sea maritime landscape planning since 1996. They have held official negotiations since 2015 (including two vice ministers, eight director-general-level).

However, despite numerous working-level contacts and official negotiations, no specific agreement has been reached on maritime boundary plans between the two countries. The two governments have so far not even officially announced their particular positions on the boundaries of EEZs. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers the importance of maritime boundary planning, and pushes for negotiations to maximize national interests based on international law.

With the maritime boundaries undefined, the PRC’s attempts to interpret international law only in its favor, without clear grounds, can cause great confusion. In particular, China’s position is that coastal countries should control even the simple passage of other countries’ warships and military aircraft within the EEZ. It is all the more worrisome that uncertainty on EEZ  boundaries in the Yellow Sea could lead to a conflict of military and security interests between the two countries, beyond their just competing for economic interests.

China’s stance on military activities in the EEZ

Generally, in Articles 58 and 87 of UNCLOS, the EEZ is recognized as an open sea except for certain economically significant activities underwater, such as fishing and seabed mining. Therefore, all ships and aircraft have freedom of navigation within the EEZs of other countries. China, however, interprets Articles 58(3) and 88 of the UNCLOS differently, claiming that it is authorized to regulate military activities of other countries within its EEZ. In addition, China contends that all activities by foreign vessels within its EEZ should abide by Chinese laws.[2]

China has continued its provocative actions against U.S. military assets operating in its EEZ. Such actions involve Chinese civilian, government, or military assets shadowing or intercepting U.S. military assets operating in China’s EEZ, sometimes in a dangerous or unprofessional manner.  China claims that the U.S. military’s activities in its EEZ violate the UNCLOS “peaceful purpose” obligation and threaten China’s security and sovereignty.

For the past decade, China frequently has demanded the eviction of Korean warships and Coast Guard patrol ships operating west of 124°E longitude. Similarly, China has continually demanded the eviction of Korea’s oceanographic research ships from Korea’s southern and western coasts, where their contested EEZs overlap. In effect, these demands indicate that China claims most of the Yellow Sea within its jurisdiction.[3]

Meanwhile, various Chinese maritime forces, including fishing vessels, government ships, maritime survey ships, and the Navy, operate increasingly frequently in all parts of the Yellow Sea. Notably, the increased activity of Chinese naval vessels is noticeable. Data from the Korean National Assembly that the Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted in 2020 show the number of Chinese warships near the Korean Peninsula increased from 96 in 2015 to over 290 in 2019. According to South Korean naval officials, non-combat naval vessels such as landing craft and small sea vessels were mainly active in the past, while the number of Chinese frigates and combat ships weighing more than 7,000 tons has increased significantly.

As a result, there is a growing concern in Korea that China will include the entire Yellow Sea in its EEZ, monopolizing both fish stocks and underground resources such as natural gas resources that may exist in the continental shelf around the Korean Peninsula. Given their interpretation of foreign military ships operating in others’ EEZs, it is also worrying that China will try to drastically reduce the operational area of the South Korean military. This would clearly dramatically escalate military tensions between the two countries and increase the likelihood of a South Korean kinetic response.

Characteristics of China’s Gray zone operations at Sea

In 2019, several researchers at the RAND Corporation in the United States released a report analyzing China’s gray zone operations at sea and suggesting how to respond to the threats. Researchers said, “China’s unique brand of gray zone measures involves the use of civilian fishing vessels, a people’s armed forces maritime militia or a group of civilian fishermen who receive military training and coordinate their actions under state and military guidance. Moreover, China also uses government vessels (coast guards) to assert administrative control over disputed island features and the maritime zones that those features create.” The types and drivers of China’s gray zone activities fall into seven categories.

  1. Military Intimidation: The use of military assets to convey the threat of a potential military attack or a risk of military escalation. Examples include: Troops massed at contested borders, large-scale exercises, threats of force, and provocative actions.
  2. Paramilitary Activities: A broad array of maritime paramilitary assets whose platforms or operators blur the distinction between civilian and military. Examples include Maritime law enforcement and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia.
  3. State-affiliated Businesses: China is co-opting state or state-affiliated bodies and state-owned enterprises, such as state-owned energy and engineering companies, as strategic tools to advance Chinese interests in disputed areas.
  4. Manipulation of Borders: China is doing covert and overt actions to alter the status quo or delineate territorial or maritime disputes. Such tactics include building artificial islands and dual-use facilities on those islands to change the status quo in the SCS.
  5. Information Operations: Activities using cyber, media, and propaganda mechanisms against regional states to justify China’s claims to sovereignty or uphold its actions’ moral authority. In the international sphere, such activities include discrediting or disputing other countries’ sovereignty claims over islands and maritime space in the ECS and SCS, and coordinating campaigns to get nonaligned countries to support China’s position on disputed territory. Domestically, this involves bolstering China’s claims to disputed maritime features and maritime space in the ECS and SCS through public education, textbooks, and media, and discrediting international tribunal judgments and UNCLOS principles in the Chinese media.
  6. Legal and Diplomatic Measures: Legal narratives, scholarship, and diplomatic overtures legitimize its stance on territorial disputes and undermine claims by other states. In many cases, China has sought to carve out exceptions within the existing rules-based order to advance or protect its interests. Examples of such gray zone tactics include: declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the ECS, regulating fisheries to strengthen administrative control over disputed areas under the pretext of protection of marine life, and funding research on alternative approaches to international law.
  7. Economic Coercion: Using trade, aid, investments, and threats of sanctions, China influences state behavior in contested regions. Examples include: banning imports of rare earth metals to Japan in light of a Chinese fishing captain’s detention in 2010, and banning fruit imports from the Philippines during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff.

The present and future of china’s gray zone Operation in the yellow sea

Ostensibly, there is no conflict or dispute over the EEZ in the Yellow Sea between Korea and China. However, in light of the above seven categories of China’s gray zone operations, it seems that China is already engaged in gray zone activities or is preparing for operations from a long-term perspective. To date, China has tried to keep these activities small enough that the Korean government and the people do not feel threatened. Table-1 shows the results from analyzing/predicting the present and future of China’s gray zone operations in the Yellow Sea based on the seven categories of process. These analysis and prediction estimates derive from several informal exchanges with former and current ROK Navy and some military experts.

Table 1: China’s gray zone operation in the Yellow Sea

Categories Present Future Possibility
Military intimidation Troops massed at contested borders Medium Medium
Large-scale exercises Medium Medium
Threats of force Low Medium
Provocative actions in China’s EEZ Low Medium
Paramilitary activities Maritime law enforcement Low Medium
People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia Medium High
Co-opting of state-affiliated businesses Low High
Manipulation of borders Medium High
Information operations Medium High
Legal and diplomatic measures Low High
Economic coercion Low High

Military Intimidation: The Chinese Navy is steadily enlarging its range of activities and increasing the number of its warships in the Yellow Sea. It also regularly conducts large-scale maritime military exercises around the Shandong peninsula and off the coast of Shanghai. Long-distance navigation training flights consisting of long-range bombers (H-6), fighters, and reconnaissance planes frequently flew around the Korean Peninsula, reaching Ulleng-do Island of the East Sea. In addition, there are frequent moves to restrict the activities of the Korean Navy in waters west of 124°E longitude.  There is a high possibility of accidental military clashes between the two countries in narrow waters. If tensions between the two countries increase in the future, China might act provocatively against a South Korean warship operating in waters west of 124°E longitude, as it did with a U.S. military ship.

Paramilitary Activities: Illegal fishing by Chinese boats has continued in waters near Korea; despite the crackdown by the Korean Coast Guard and government protests, the number has increased every year, depleting coastal fish stocks. In particular, recently, Chinese illegal fishing boats have formed large-scale fleets, and have systematically and violently resisted the crackdown activities of the Korean Coast Guard, causing unnecessary casualties. Although not officially confirmed, the systematic behavior of Chinese fishing boats raises suspicions that the people’s armed forces maritime militia may be involved. In the future, if the Chinese government unilaterally mandates its preferred boundaries of the EEZ, it likely will strengthen the Chinese Coast Guard’s enforcement in the area. Also, the Chinese people’s armed forces maritime militia probably will become more organized and aggressive.

State-affiliated Businesses: The Chinese government will explore and collect resources and build various undersea communication infrastructures in the future of the Korean Peninsula, using companies like China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and China Communications Construction Company (CCCC). Moreover, if South Korea stops or protests these actions, China likely will respond in other ways by using other means of gray zone activities.

Manipulation of Borders: Unlike the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea has few places to build artificial islands or install maritime facilities to support its territorial claims. Therefore, China currently has only fixed buoys for marine observation in the Yellow Sea. However, Ieodo (Socotra Rock, Chinese name Suyanzhao) is highly likely to be subject to future disputes between the two countries. Ieodo is an underwater reef located 80 miles from Mara-do in Korea and 133 miles from Tong-Dao in China. South Korea established and operated a comprehensive marine science base on this reef on June 11, 2003.

Currently, Korea and China share the view that “Ieodo is not subject to territorial disputes because it does not have its territorial waters and EEZs as an underwater reef.” However, China considers Ieodo part of its territory; for example, China claimed on its official website (China Oceanic Information Network, 海洋信息網) in December 2007, “Ieodo is a Chinese territory as a part of Chinese continental shelf that developed in the East China Sea and as a part of China’s EEZ.” Also, on March 3, 2012, Liu Ci-Gui (刘赐贵), director of China’s National Maritime Bureau, told the official Xinhua News Agency that “Ieodo is locating in China’s waters and China will conduct regular patrols with surveillance ships and aircraft.”[1] Therefore, there appears to be a substantial possibility that China may try to remove the Korean structure installed on Ieodo and establish its own to claim jurisdiction in the future.

Information Operations: Many internet sites or users in China claim that China’s EEZ must include most of the Yellow Sea and Ieodo. If the Chinese government announces a clear position on the Yellow Sea, they will actively support the government’s position. They will spread out various materials supporting the government’s position to the Chinese people, refute South Korea’s claims, and persuade the people of neighboring countries in unison.

Legal and Diplomatic Measures: China has long studied and applied three types of warfare, legal, psychological, and public opinion. It has mainly prepared logical grounds through legal action and maximized public opinion and psychological warfare through intelligence operations. Similar methods are likely to be used for the Yellow Sea. Based on domestic laws, the Chinese Coast Guard can strengthen the crackdown on Korean fishers within the EEZ claimed by the Chinese government. China can also declare an additional air defense identification zone (ADIZ) as it does in the ECS. This would further heighten tensions and conflicts between Korea and China.

Economic Coercion: Representative examples of China’s financial means to pressure South Korea include sanctions against Lotte and a ban on tourism to South Korea when the U.S. Forces Korea deployed THAAD in 2015. Because Korea is highly dependent on China, China can use its economic pressure card in the Yellow Sea maritime boundary negotiations.


The increase in Chinese warship activity in the Yellow Sea threatens to incrementally change the status quo and make it a fait accompli to gain an advantage in Yellow Sea maritime boundary planning. From a long-term perspective, it is to China’s advantage to intentionally delay the maritime boundary planning negotiations and expand the activity space little by little while the boundaries are ambiguous.

China has already carried out gray zone operations in the ESC and SCS against Japan and Southeast Asian countries, and has also come into conflict with the United States around the issue there. A larger-scale gray zone operation in the Yellow Sea by the PRC would challenge Korea’s authority and Korea could not adequately address such challenges without relying on allies for influence and military assistance.

Korea’s mid-to-long range goal should be to respond to China’s gray zone operations appropriately, and to obtain favorable results in maritime boundary planning negotiations with China. To this end, Korea should establish long-term response strategies and operational plans to integrate all national capabilities. At the same time, Korea should concentrate the nation’s diplomatic powers to develop clear logic to respond to China’s dubious claims, and should draw on international cooperation while neutralizing China’s attempts to change the status quo in the Yellow Sea.

However, the priority is to work with China to finalize the Yellow Sea maritime border as soon as possible. In this process, South Korea and China should try to mutually respect the interests of coastal countries as defined by the UNCLOS and ensure the freedom of the seas demanded by the international community. In addition, the two countries should communicate appropriately so that misunderstandings and misjudgments do not lead to catastrophic consequences. The two countries should also both maintain flexible stances directed toward active cooperation.

*Chungjin Jung is a lieutenant colonel in the Republic of Korea Air Force, and a visiting scholar 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.

2 Lee Ji-Yong, Analysis of the Results of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and the New Leadership’s Domestic and Foreign Policy Direction, Analysis of Major International Issues 2012-37, National Academy of Diplomacy, 2012.

3 Kim Young-won, International Legal Review of Military Activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): Conflict between the US and China in East Asia and Implications for Korea, JPI Policy Forum 2017-16, Jeju Peace Research Institute, 2017.

4 Kim Dong-Wook, Difference in Perspectives on Yellow Sea Issues, KIMS Periscope, Korea Institute of Maritime Strategy, 2016.

5 Jin Haeng-Nam, Exploring the Current Status and Solutions of Ieodo Problems, JPI Policy Forum 2012-02, Jeju Peace Research Institute, 2012.

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. September 2021

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Date: 2021/09/30

Learning to Live with Endemic COVID-19

By Frederic S. Goldstein1, Benjamin J. Ryan2, Deon K. Canyon3

Over the past few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have increasingly heard the phrase, “we need to learn to live with it.” Often this refers to accepting and dealing with something when a bad situation or adverse life event alters expected outcomes. In the case of the current pandemic, the end and return to normal was the expected outcome. However, humanity has been overwhelmed by repeated surges of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths associated with the Delta variant. Questions are now being asked about the fate of COVID-19. Is this the last surge we are likely to see? None of the experts know the answer, but with continuous reports of emerging mutations and new variants with perhaps greater transmissibility and infectiousness combined with low vaccination rates, policymakers and planners are coming to terms with the fact that they must consider additional surges, a rolling, long-term pandemic, or even endemic COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has repeatedly shown the world that pandemic exit strategies are often ill-considered and unstructured. Despite all their resources and scientific capacity, affluent nations remain vulnerable and exposed due to the emergence of mutations conferring higher transmissibility, and the inability to convince the entire population to take preventative measures. Nations that have locked down their borders for long periods have learned to live with the fact that they remain vulnerable to COVID-19 and need an exit strategy.

Policymakers and planners in some nations and communities are rapidly adjusting course with the aim of learning to live with COVID-19. This includes rethinking their policies as they either give up preventative practices, lockdown harder than ever, or take the middle path. Accepting vaccination is critical for success and at times this may be complemented by mask-wearing, social distancing, and limiting gathering sizes to ensure a smoother path to social and economic recovery. The mindset has changed from zero COVID-19, embracing infection or eliminating the risk of infection to focusing on the middle path of avoiding severe illness and death.

Focusing on the first word “Learn” can be instructive. Learn means gaining knowledge or understanding or skill by reflection, imitation, or experience. As Confucius said, the former is the easiest and the latter the most bitter. This is the key to our ability to successfully adjust to current and future conditions associated with the COVID-19 and future pandemics. We must begin by recognizing that learning is a continuous, iterative, ongoing process. This is the basis of scientific discovery and advancement, and an underlying reality that we all must understand and embrace. As COVID-19 mutations continue to emerge, so must humanity continually update its knowledge about the virus, its epidemiology, ways it can be targeted, and what we can be done to mitigate impacts on societies and nations. Learning to live with the virus is increasingly being seen as the only way forward and the new normal. Integrated options for achieving this are outlined in the following section.

  1. Virology – More resources are required to understand and track this virus. Countless mutations have been observed, however, we do not know the epidemiological impact of each of these mutations. When the Delta variant emerged, it had some mutations that had been characterized, but several new ones that had not been researched before. This information needs to be rapidly researched, shared and made available in a global public health database or something similar using existing infrastructure.
  2. Vaccines – All vaccines possess different levels of efficacy with breakthroughs and boosters being common to most. Research must continue to identify higher efficacy vaccines and to explore new mechanisms for generating physiological immunity. As the virus continues to evolve, vaccines developers play catch-up, as they do for influenza every year.
  3. Medicine – The medical community has learned a great deal about COVID-19 and while there is no treatment, fewer patients are dying due to improved care. While research is still required to improve medical support, we need more data on what this virus does to the human body. In addition to respiratory issues, are there circulatory system impacts? What are the multisystem components and how do they manifest? This will require more research and global cooperation by experts from around the world.
  4. Healthcare – Increased surge capacity and planning is required. Unvaccinated COVID-19 patients are consuming limited human and other resources required to treat other ailments. As a result, people are dying due to an inability to access standard care. New strategies and/or extra resourcing, such as insurance coding, for providing in-home care and telehealth are urgently required for all patients.
  5. Prevention – We need to better understand the myriad of non-pharmacological interventions, their individual and aggregate impact, and when, where, how, and why to use them. For example, social distancing, group size, indoor, outdoor, ventilation, cleaning, and face masks in certain situations such as mixed populations of vaccinated and unvaccinated.
  6. Population Health – Governments must focus on the factors that protect and promote health across all sectors of society. Prevention is the priority, which is an anticipatory action taken to prevent the occurrence of an event or to minimize its effect after it has occurred. However, prevention is not always achievable, so we need to understand the population-at-risk and how to reduce exposure to disease pathogens. This requires flexibility and rapid accurate communication. Perhaps now is the time for multi-disciplinary population-based management teams to inform decisions? Decision-makers must come to recognize that no one authority or organization possesses all the expertise or resources required to mitigate COVID-19 risks and allow all aspects of society to continue functioning.
  7. Education – We have information on this virus concerning treatments, medications, vaccines, non-pharmaceutical interventions, and a myriad other things people need to know and understand to make good decisions, but the method by which this information is used to educate the general population is deficient. The pandemic revealed a lack of basic knowledge in science, biology, and healthcare. Further, it exposed our inability to influence through education, certain populations to adopt preventative behaviors.
  8. Behavior – Creating behavioral change in individuals to improve population health remains the most significant challenge for the government. Understanding how to bring about systemic behavioral change is required by both the general population and healthcare providers. As the virus mutates and spreads through communities, we must be as rapid in our ability to change our approaches and influence others for the betterment of all.
  9. Flexibility – The ability to adapt is necessary to embrace the changes required to survive this pandemic. One community or school district may be doing well and then have a large outbreak, while another may be going from a surge to a lower number. Both require flexibility to change the community’s approach.
  10. Tradeoffs – Taking the middle path requires balancing the trade-offs of opening society versus locking it down. Between a fully opened society and a locked-down one. If anything has become clear over the past two years, politicians often have little awareness of the consequences of their decisions. It is not acceptable to have zero deaths and economic ruin, and we certainly do not want preventable death to keep the economy going. Lost in this conversation has been the huge healthcare costs associated with choosing the economy over safety. Is healthcare really what we want to spend our money on as an economic driver, and is it economically better to create more sickness, which impacts productivity? What too of the costs to healthcare personnel, to those suffering mental health issues, and to those experiencing long COVID-19 with a potential lifetime of health issues, loss of education, and social opportunities?
  11. Assistance – The International Monetary Fund said the world faces “a worsening two-track recovery, driven by dramatic differences in vaccine availability, infection rates, and the ability to provide policy support.” COVID-19 highlights an increasing divide between affluent and poor nations, and yet, it has also revealed how close we are all tied together in manifest pandemic destiny. It is high time that all nations turned their attention to adequately resourcing and resolving transnational security threats of this nature.

We have seen the socioeconomic impacts of extremes in decision making that drive national leaders to seek a realistic path that retains the flexibility to adjust as the situation changes. The possibility remains that humanity will encounter a variant that is more contagious, more virulent, and unresponsive to current vaccines. To cope with this possibility, nations and communities need well-resourced, well-structured, and well-integrated options for living with COVID-19.

As humanity continues its bitter experience with the pandemic, it is learning what does not work and what does work against this virus. “Learning to Live with It” does not mean complacency, which only serves to increase global inequities. The warning signs are clear and national leaders must ensure we move through this pandemic without creating additional, unnecessary, long-term generational damage to health systems and economies.

[1] President and Founder Accountable Health, LLC
[2] Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Environmental Science, Baylor University
[3] Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu Hawaii

 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. September 2021

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Date: 2021/09/21
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