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Ten-Year Retrospective

Strategic Vision vol. 10, no. 50 (September, 2021)

Ten Years and 50 Issues: Looking Back through the pages of Strategic Vision 

By Dean Karalekas

Japanese and Taiwanese vessels clash, albeit in a water fight, in the seas near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands in 2012.
photo: ROC Coast Guard Administration

It was almost ten years ago that the editors and staff of Strategic Vision published our inaugural issue. This month, we are publishing our 50th. With such an important landmark, I thought it would be appropriate to observe this milestone by taking a look back at the past ten years of our journal; how we started, and how far we’ve come. As well, it is worth taking stock of how some of the major stories we have covered pertaining to the security situation in the Taiwan Strait, and the Asia-Pacific region in general, have evolved and developed over the past decade.

In the latter half of 2011, I was a lowly PhD candidate in the International Doctoral Program in AsiaPacific Studies (IDAS), at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University (NCCU), where I was blessed to have met Dr. Fu-kuo Liu, my professor of security studies, and a member of the IDAS board of directors. In his capacity as head of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies, a think tank affiliated with NCCU, Dr. Liu had been looking to launch a bi-monthly Englishlanguage security journal, and he had seen a publication I had recently produced, the Asia-Pacific Newsletter, to promote the IDAS program. He asked me to join the team. I had come to academia after having been employed as a journalist, and so I was familiar with the difficulties involved. Nevertheless, I heartily agreed, and we began planning our first issue. It was not long before we had established ourselves as a cutting edge source of defense and security analysis and reporting in English in Taiwan, and were joined in our effort by National Defense University (NDU). It became my very great pleasure to work closely with our new NDU board members: officers whose professionalism and expertise took our journal to the next level. Today, we are proud to continue that partnership.

Looking back on that first issue, it is impossible not to be struck by how much has changed—and how much has not—over the past decade. Dr. Ming-shih Shen offered an assessment of Taiwan’s air-defense capabilities after the US government of the day declined to sell new F-16C/D fighter planes to the Republic of China (ROC) military, and instead offered to upgrade its aging fleet of F-16A/Bs. Much of the decade was marked by a back-and-forth on the utility of these upgrades, as well as whether Taipei should seek to purchase the new F-35s, in the ongoing struggle to maintain the island’s air defenses. Today, we see why that struggle is so crucial, as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft have made increasingly threatening incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) over the past several months, the latest at the time of writing being a record 28 aircraft intrusions in a single day.

Moreover, the very tenor of cross-strait relations has shifted over the past ten years. Under Chinese leader Hu Jintao, there was still a hope that China—already well into its meteoric rise as our first issue rolled off the presses—would take its place among the family of nations and become a responsible stakeholder in the international community. Over the past decade our coverage has shown how that hope faded, as Hu was replaced as leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in March 2013 by Xi Jinping, who quickly set about consolidating his hold on power and ushering in a period of aggressive foreign policy and cult-of-personality not seen since the days of Mao Zedong. We continued to analyze this trend in our pages, following such events as Xi’s groundbreaking 2015 meeting with then-ROC President Ma Ying-jeou, Xi’s abolition of term limits on his office (essentially making himself leader for life), and the hybrid warfare China conducts against Taiwan, wherein assets of the communist state have been using targeted propaganda and infiltration of Taiwan’s remarkably free media environment to engage in psychological-warfare operations for the purpose of influencing elections and steering public opinion toward Beijing.

Domestic political changes

On the Taiwan side, the past ten years has likewise seen many political changes, not the least of which being the shift in tone from the Ma administration to the government formed by President Tsai Ingwen. As covered in our pages, Ma’s policy of pursuing closer economic ties to China, as evidenced by the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), was not only geared toward boosting the economy through lucrative cross-strait trade and investment ties, but it was predicated on the belief that close economic integration between the two countries would serve as a disincentive to Beijing from engaging in any adventurism aimed at effecting political unification.

Ma Ying-jeou shares a historic handshake with Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015.
photo: ROC Presidential Office

This was far from the prevailing view on the island, however, as evidenced by the Sunflower Movement of 2014, and the historic student occupation of the Legislative Yuan. This peeled the curtain back on people’s apprehensions about becoming too integrated with the mainland, and their desire to follow the rules of procedure and democracy that govern the operations of the ROC Legislature. In 2016, and again last year, Tsai was elected president, and began a move away from the Ma-era policies, launching the New Southbound Policy, for example, which diversified Taiwan’s trade and investments to preclude the island from being held economic hostage by its richer and more powerful neighbor.

In the very first article of issue 1, Dr. Chia-sheng Chen examined what would become one of the most significant security issues in the region, the overlapping territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. It was a time when the “China threat” narrative was just beginning to be adopted by claimant nations in the region, as opposed to a strictly Western preoccupation with the notion.

Over the past decade, we have continued to cover the topic as Beijing has gradually taken de facto control over that body of water, including via employment of the so-called cabbage tactic of swarming and encircling the islands in consecutive layers of PLA Navy (PLAN) ships, Coast Guard vessels, as well as quasi-civilian fishing boats, cutting the islands off from the assets of the nations that claim it. This “grey zone” tactic proved to be fruitful for Beijing, as it succeeded in normalizing a Chinese presence in the vicinity of disputed islands, forcing other claimants to either press their claims confrontationally, or concede to that presence.

Later in the decade, the world watched as Chinese vessels and crews set about an island-building project, primarily on the Paracel and Spratly island chains, which are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. Again, the international community was largely placated by Beijing’s promises that it would not militarize said islands, but this inevitably happened, with the placement of anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and missile defenses, as well as the construction of runways and dozens of hangars for fighter aircraft on several of the islands, substantially extending the PLA’s effective operational reach.

A tent city under the Keleti train station in Budapest. The refugee crisis of 2015 was a major non-traditional security event affecting Europe.
photo: Dean Karalekas
Taiwanese citizens gather in downtown Taipei during the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
photo: tenz1225

Arbitration award

One of the events with a significant impact on the South China Sea was the 2016 ruling by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration that essentially invalidated China’s claim predicated on an historical argument and the infamous nine-dash line. Disregarding this ruling, China has continued to press its claims, aided by the 2016 election of a pro-Beijing leader in Manila, President Rodrigo Duterte. Our coverage in Strategic Vision provided a variety of perspectives on the issue, including those of writers and analysts from Taiwan, Vietnam, the United States, and around the region, including an article by Philippine journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug.

Another potential flashpoint in the region is the Korean Peninsula, and my own beat: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). By far the most influential event to take place in North Korea over the past decade was the death of Kim Jong-il and the ascension of his third son, Kim Jong-un, as supreme leader in 2011. Initially, speculation was rampant whether the younger, politically inexperienced Kim would manage to consolidate his hold on power, or whether he would fall victim to a coup or an uprising in the absence of his popular father.

Once Kim Jong-un managed to consolidate power, despite the palace intrigue and suspected political assassinations that allowed him to do so, DPRK relations with the West continued largely unchanged, and they began the decade looking very much like the nuclear brinksmanship leveraged by the elder Kim whenever he wanted some attention in the foreign press. ThenUS President Barack Obama’s policy was something of a throwback to the neo-conservative, hard-line approach taken during the first term of President George W. Bush, and as a result, Kim followed in the same comfortable pattern of seeking negotiation, followed by acting out via missile and nuclear tests.

A bicyclist takes a break along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea.
photo: Dean Karalekas

During this belligerent phase of relations, Pyongyang raised tensions on the peninsula by conducting a series of nuclear tests and launching scores of missiles. In early 2018, the rules of the diplomatic game changed with the unconventional negotiating style of a new US president, Donald Trump. Trump famously began by taunting Kim, calling him derogatory names like “Little Rocket Man,” and publically speculated about the possibility of launching a preventive military strike against the Hermit Kingdom if they didn’t play ball. At the same time, Trump broke with tradition and offered to meet one-on-one with the North Korean leader, conferring great face upon him to the chagrin of more conventional international relations specialists who had become increasingly frustrated by Trump’s unpredictability.

The gambit worked, however, and by early 2018, Kim had embarked upon a charm offensive, holding a dozen summit meetings with regional leaders, and stating publically that he would decommission the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center and work toward eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This period saw unprecedented good will between Pyongyang and Washington, perhaps best illustrated by Trump’s impromptu crossing of the Military Demarcation Line and wandering into North Korea during a visit to the Joint Security Area, at which he invited Kim to meet him—much to the dismay of more conventional policymakers, as well as Trump’s security detail. In all, it has been an exciting decade during which to follow North Korea’s place in the world.

Top writers

These and other issues impacting security in the Asia-Pacific received our attention and found coverage in the pages of Strategic Vision by some of the top analysts and researchers of the region, and around the world. For as we continued to keep a keen eye on the trends and events of importance in the region, we live in a globalized world, and threats that emerge on the other side of the planet will inevitably have a ripple effect on the security situation at home. We expanded our coverage to look at the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East; the expansion of Chinese investment in Africa; as well as events in Russia, Latin America, and anywhere our readers need to be informed about. To that end, we selected the best writers with a specialization in the area.

Moh’d Ali Khawaldeh, an officer in the Jordanian armed forces, covered events in the Middle East for us, especially as regards the fight against Islamic State. NCCU alum Michal Thim contributed regular articles on his area of specialization, international cybersecurity. Tobias Burgers kept us all abreast of developments in unmanned aerial and maritime vehicles for use in warfighting. Our regular, repeat contributors have been a joy to work with, including such illustrious names as Alvin Yao, Edward Hsieh, Mignonne Chan, Amrita Jash, David Scott, Raviprasad Narayanan, Michael Sun, and so many more. Our pages have also been graced by such luminary guest contributors as Turkish Ambassador Muzaffer Eröktem, and Norica Nicolai, a Member of the European Parliament who wrote for us about the work-in-progress that is European democracy.

I could hardly have imagined, as I struggled over the layout for the first issue of Strategic Vision in my tiny student apartment ten years ago, that we would grow into one of the premiere sources for English-language news and analysis of cross-strait security, much less that we would still be around a decade later, publishing our 50th issue. Those years, and that duty—for I see my role as Editor-at-Large of Strategic Vision as a duty—have taken me to such places as Iraq, North Korea, Hungary, Russia, and The Sudan; Wherever I have found myself over the past decade, Strategic Vision has been a part of my life. In fact, it is a testament to the professionalism and generosity of spirit of Dr. Liu, Aaron Jensen, Richard Hu, Tiehlin Yen, Elsie Chang, and all the fine men and woman who have served as members of our editorial board over the past ten years, as well as all of our many excellent contributors too numerous to mention, that we are still going strong as a trusted source of news and analysis about the state of security in the Asia Pacific and the world. Here’s to another 50 issues.

A security forces specialist stands for a portrait with a USAF Thunderbird F-16 on the flight line at sunrise.
photo: Matt Hecht

Dr. Dean Karalekas is one of the co-founders of Strategic Vision and a graduate of the International Doctoral Program at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.