Blinken Visits South Pacific, Colombia-ELN Cease-Fire, Thailand’s Political Face-off, and More

MCMAHON:
In the coming week, Secretary Blinken wraps up a strategic Pacific tour in Australia, the Colombian government and rebels commence a ceasefire and Thailand navigates a potential battle royale. It’s July 27th, 2023 and time for The World Next Week. I am Bob McMahon.

 

ROBBINS:
And I’m Carly Ann Robbins. So Bob, let’s start in the Pacific. This Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wraps up his trip to Tonga, New Zealand and Australia. So besides cheering on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, what’s Blinken’s agenda? Security is obviously a big one with Australia, which is now part of AUKUS and the Quad, but why New Zealand, other than the soccer teams, and why Tonga, which has a population of a hundred thousand people?

 

MCMAHON:
Well, if I could say one word or one country, Carla, it would be China. In fact, one could say China, like nature, abhors a vacuum and has perceived a vacuum in the Pacific Rim and has moved in with a great deal of verve in terms of signing up countries for infrastructure deals, sometimes security arrangements, police training, things like that, all of which has certainly gotten the attention of the U.S. as well as its allies, Australia and New Zealand. And so you’ve had a set of plans and summits and visits that have been lined up by the Biden administration, that last year there was a summit that the U.S. held with Pacific Island nations. They’re due to hold another one I believe in September, and they have been making a case against what they call China’s economic coercion. We heard this again from Antony Blinken when he visited Tonga.

 

This I believe was the first visit ever by a U.S. cabinet minister to that archipelago nation, and so Tonga getting a lot of attention. It has already gotten attention from China. It has itself said it’s not in engaging in any sort of competition, but is certainly glad for the attention. And you also have this week playing out the U.S. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, visiting Papua New Guinea and he will join Antony Blinken in Australia for the wrap up to these travels in a meeting that the U.S. and the Australians hold, a bilateral meeting that is called the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations or AUSMIN. Not AUKUS. The State Department was clear in saying, “This is not AUKUS. There’s no UK there,” but there are certainly overtures of AUKUS, which is the U.S. strategic and security relationship with Australia on the discussion board. 

 

But I think he’ll also hear, Blinken in particular, will also hear from his counterparts in New Zealand and Australia, among other things concerned about China’s ramping up activities in the region, which is again, economic. Sometimes it forays into helping these countries in police and security matters and involves potential overtures on basing and things like that. These two countries watch these issues extremely closely. They’re very concerned about China stepping out further. It’s already been very assertive in what it calls its nine-dash line in the South China Sea. 

 

So as I said at the beginning, a lot of China on the agenda in addition to trying to show that in person, the U.S. is back. The visit to Tonga for example, was there to herald the opening of a U.S. embassy and there’s supposed to be a permanent ambassadorial presence coming to Tonga as well, as well as more ambassadors and diplomats in the region steadily. So again, it’s the U.S. trying to indicate a presence and momentum in its presence in the region, and then concluding with its very big and growing security partner, Australia.

 

ROBBINS:
So deliverables, that’s always what diplomats think about when they go on these visits. Obviously it’s a big deal to have the U.S. secretary of state visit small places, but a lot of these small countries are confronted with rising seas. I mean, I think Kiribati is one of the places that we’re going to be looking at developing a relationship with, maybe even putting a diplomatic mission there. I mean, that place is going to be inundated by the waters at some point very soon. What are these countries asking for? Are they asking for money? Are they asking for climate remediation? Are they asking for security against China? What’s their focus?

 

MCMAHON:
You’re absolutely right. I think climate is very much on the agenda and sometimes gets overshadowed in all the talk about China. They are very concerned. It’s not an overstatement to say this is an existential issue for them and it is about moving populations out of areas that had been seen as safe, that are no longer, that are lower-lying. They are on the front lines of these rising sea levels and will be needing help in moving people, in creating communities that can show resilience in the face of climate change. It’s not only rising seas, it’s also incredibly intense storms that have the potential to run roughshod over these communities. So I think it’s adding that resilience. So what does that mean? That is hardening up the infrastructure. It’s improving the structure of living areas and making sure that energy and things like water and other services can be provided.

 

I believe we’re going to see these deliverables more coming out of the summit that would be coming up. So this visit is one to kind of help continue to set the stage for that. I think the president would like to be able to make some comments about that on the climate front. And then on the security front, I think I’m watching closely what’s going to follow the Austin visit to Papua New Guinea, which is a very important large nation in the region, to see what that means in terms of expanded security ties. 

 

The big security issue obviously is where the trip wraps up, which is in Brisbane, Australia. And I think from the Australian side, I’ve been reading some of the Australian reporting on this trip. They are very much fixated on what is the follow-up? Even though it is called AUSMIN, what is the AUKUS follow-up in terms of a timetable on Australia receiving nuclear submarines from the U.S.? There was some concern that the U.S. might be, or at least the U.S. Congress might be slowing down the process in which Australia is able to acquire what are called Virginia-class submarines because the U.S. itself is seen, it’s shrinking in the ranks of its own nuclear submarines. So I think they’re going to want some assurances in Australia about the U.S. coming through on this deal and providing the resources and the material that Australia sees as necessary to be part of this arrangement.

 

ROBBINS:
Yeah, that was one more of those things in the NDAA, is that it’s not that they’re opposed AUKUS, but they think this is a way of squeezing the administration to committing to building even more nuclear submarines.

 

MCMAHON:
Exactly. Exactly. Boosting the number of nuclear submarines from what is seen as, I think it’s in the forties right now to something like sixty-six. So these are extremely expensive and obviously highly sought after. So we’ll see what comes out of this. Again, the Australians are keen to see what the U.S. is providing in terms of these, as you say, deliverables and a timetable and talking about basing, as well. Again, Australian commitment to AUKUS is a big one. They’ve been working strenuously to manage their relationship with China. And by the way, everybody on this trip, the U.S., Australia, the island nations, they’re all trying to say, “This isn’t about a zero-sum game or we win and China loses, it’s more about managing all of these relationships, but by the way, China is being coercive and we want to counter that.” 

 

ROBBINS:
And by the way, it’s a zero-sum game.

 

MCMAHON:
You said it, not me, Carla. 

 

Well, Carla, let’s move over across the world to Colombia. Next Thursday, the Colombian government and the paramilitary group known as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, will begin a six-month ceasefire. Now, this is not as large a group as what’s known as the FARC, but it’s still a very significant step to be made because this has been an ongoing battle that dated from the formation of ELN, I think in 1964. So are we looking at the onset of further peace in Colombia, Carla?

 

ROBBINS:
Well, we will see. Colombia has a really long history of internal armed conflicts. At least 450,000 people are believed to have been killed in the country just between 1985 and 2018 and millions more have been forced from their home from a variety of different rebel groups, paramilitary groups, obviously the drug wars and all of that. So after Colombia’s best-known and largest group, the FARC, disarmed, which was in 2016, and we have to be clear here that there are still armed FARC factions out there, but the main FARC has disarmed. The ELN, which as you said has been fighting since the sixties, took its place as the biggest remaining rebel group with approximately some 3,000 fighters there. 

 

And last year, Colombians elected Gustavo Petro, their first leftist president, who promised to seek total peace. And he’s a really interesting guy. He succeeded a very rightist president, Ivan Duque, and he himself is a former mayor of the now disbanded M-19 guerrilla group. He then became a senator and now the president, and a key part of his appeal in this campaign was this promise that he was going to bring all this group in from the cold, and he’s tried to negotiate ceasefires with five groups. He’s had limited success for them to hold, but this has been the big prize and the big main focus for them. 

 

It’s really important to keep in mind that this is a ceasefire, not a peace deal or a demobilization. There’s a very, very long way to go. The two sides are supposed to resume talks next month in Venezuela, and it’s really hard to figure out what the ELN wants. They’re there, they said they’re going to talk. They used very general terms like participation and socioeconomic transformation and compensation for victims, victims I might add of the government, not from their own actions. And the government has been hugely abusive. There’s no question that the Colombian military is also one of the armed groups that has been wreaking havoc in the countryside. But the ELN has a very long history of brutalizing Colombians, kidnapping civilians for ransom, forced recruitment of soldiers including children and very desperate migrants. They’re heavily involved in the drug trade, and according to the International Crisis Group, they’ve conducted social cleansing, killing petty criminals and others it considers undesirable. 

 

So let’s hope that the ceasefire holds and that they move on to substantive negotiations. But another major question is what about those remaining armed groups? Because not just the question of them negotiating with the government, the real concern is will they try to move into the ELN neighborhoods in the countryside, obviously, and the ELN will shoot back, and for the civilians caught in that crossfire, I don’t think they’re going to care whether the folks shooting at them are government forces, armed groups, the ELN. So we’ll have to see. Peace? Not exactly now.

 

MCMAHON:
Carla, I’m curious whether the large effort that was involved in reaching peace with the FARC, and as you say, there’s still some armed elements out there affiliated with them, but that is a process that seemed to have moved forward. Are there things that have been learned from that in terms of the disarmament, the repatriation or the integration of those groups into other parts of society? Anything they can apply towards ELN? And you mentioned Venezuela being a venue. Venezuela had played a malign role in the past in terms of reportedly helping some of these groups. Is Venezuela going to help at all? Is it enough of a state that can play that kind of a role? 

 

ROBBINS:
Well, the Venezuela thing is a puzzle and one of the biggest puzzle is what’s going to happen with the ELN members who are actually in Venezuela, and does this ceasefire apply to them? Are they going to come back now? That’s one of the questions there because they’ve been big fans of Hugo Chavez and now Maduro. So that’s an interesting question. Right now, Cuba was the big country where the signing took place for the ceasefire, which is good for, seems to be, for the Cubans. There seems to be new positive relationship between Colombia and Cuba for that. 

 

I don’t know whether this Venezuelan government’s going to do anything else. It’s a very interesting relationship more generally, because even the Duque government, the previous government, a very right-wing government decided that it was going to let in all of those migrants from Venezuela. Probably didn’t have much of a choice. So they have a very difficult and confusing relationship. So we’ll have to see if they can play any role at all. They’re not a particularly functioning government. 

 

Have they learned things from the FARC peace deal? Analysts are really mixed on whether that is a success or a failure. Certainly there’s a lot of people in the FARC who disarmed and a lot of people who disarmed who said they didn’t get what they were promised, a lot of people who disarmed who said that the military is still doing terrible things in the countryside. There are other people who say that, “Well, all told, this was a really terrible rebel group and a lot of people did come in from the cold.” So mixed bag there. And this is a step-by-step process. This is not an all-encompassing deal and we’ll have to see how it works. And one of the key things is that they didn’t get everybody from the FARC to come in from the cold. It was a much bigger group. So I think they’re just going to have to watch and see. It’s far too early to see whether or not there’s any lessons from the FARC to be applied to this. 

 

MCMAHON:
In the past, it was always from a U.S. perspective. When you talk about Colombia, the thoughts immediately went to, “So how does this affect the drug trade?” But it seems like the drug focus has moved to Mexico, and especially the fentanyl phenomenon, as more threatening than Colombian cocaine. But is that an overstatement? Is Colombia still something to be mindful of in terms of being a source for drugs and a place where the “global war on drugs” can be fought? 

 

ROBBINS:
Well, Petro doesn’t think that this is a war to fight. And this is the other thing that he promised, and other presidents in Colombia have promised this, that he wants to commit to rural development, that he’s targeting the financial operations that finance the drug gangs, less focused on militarizing the war on drugs. Everything’s been tried, the militarization of it, the rural development, but rural development never had enough money, never had the gentle hand that was probably required to do it. But he has promised this and once again, we’ll have to see whether or not he makes any more progress than all the previous presidents who have promised this. 

 

One of the biggest problem in the countryside of course, has been the fact that farmers have been caught in the crossfire between the military and the guerilla groups and the military and the drug traffickers, and Petro has insisted that people have to be a lot more careful whether he can really pull that off with the military, but Colombians were thrilled that when the military and indigenous searchers got together to rescue those four children in the countryside, something we talked about, and people saw that as a potential very hopeful possibility there. Now, whether that was just one bright, shining moment or whether there’s going to be a new possibility under Petro, I don’t know.

 

MCMAHON:
It would be nice to get some good news out of the region, especially Colombia. So we’ll keep an eye on that. 

 

ROBBINS:
Yep, would certainly be nice. 

 

So Bob, let’s talk about Thailand, another case of huge uncertainty. Despite the success of Pita, and I’m going to blow this, I’m sure, Limjaroenrat, and his progressive Move Forward party in May’s election, the pro-junta, pro-monarchy conservative establishment still holds the levers of power and has refused to let Pita become prime minister. So who can we now expect to come out on top? And former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in exile for, what, fifteen years, is supposedly coming back. His daughter posted the news on Instagram this week. Does that just make things even more confusing or could that perhaps lead to a better way of figuring out where this goes? 

 

MCMAHON:
So, very intriguing developments in Thailand. I sort of teased the idea of a battle royale and my opening comments on the podcast, Carla, but it is about, as you said, the Move Forward party’s pretty unshakeable commitment to trying to change, not to abolish, but to amend and sort of soften this lèse-majesté law that punishes anyone who insults the monarchy with up to fifteen years in jail. People have been doled out pretty severe sentences, and it’s also been by many accounts an abused law that has been used to target political opponents and so forth. 

 

The country this week happens to be marking the seventy-first birthday of their monarch, who I’ll call King Maha because I will butcher his full name. So that is actually going to be a vacation for parliament in the coming week until August 2nd in observance of that. And then they are supposed to, on August 4th, pick up this question of proving a government. 

 

The Move Forward party is part of a coalition. It has seemed to have given the nod to its coalition partner, Pheu Thai, which also did really well in the elections, to try to form a government. There seems to be a sense that Pheu Thai will be trying to gather enough support to get one of its candidates as a prime minister, as you said, maybe even someone like Thaksin. That would be really intriguing, but that’s a separate topic. First, though, it’s the question of whether Pheu Thai is making arrangements so that it will not come out and strongly call for amending this law on the monarchy, but in fact will just try to get the democratically elected forces into power first and foremost and then go from there.

 

Thaksin was a hugely controversial figure, to say the least. He faces actually charges that could put him in prison for up to ten years. And so him planning to come back, I think it’s August 10th, adds a lot of intrigue, as well, and it could be incredible amount of wheeling dealing going on, Carla, that we don’t even know or not privy to that basically allows the country to maneuver away from this impasse over the Move Forward party and the monarchy legislation and instead come up with a compromise that brings a candidate that through various wheeling dealing becomes more acceptable to the elite, to the royal/military elite that has ruled the country for close to ten years and that seems to prop up on a sort of decade-long basis to seize power when it does not like the way the civilian leadership is going.

 

So it’s hugely consequential, as well. This is a country that’s a U.S. ally, it’s the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia and does seem to continue to play a role in a region that’s been dealing with all sorts of problems, including the truly awful civil war in Myanmar, which continues to play out, the succession of power we just heard about in Cambodia where Hun Sen will hand the reins over to his son, but still kind of direct things. And so you have the chance for Thailand to kind of step forward democratically. It would be nice for it to sort this out in its own way and you have a democratic Thailand emerge by the end of this summer. 

 

ROBBINS:
So here we have Tony Blinken going to Tonga, and I’m not minimizing the importance of that region and those countries, but you just pointed out the potential central role that Thailand could play in Cambodia, in Myanmar. Is the U.S. playing any role in this? I mean, usually these anti-democratic maneuvering draws a very strong rebuke from the U.S. or am I wrong? Has the Biden administration really been low keying this one? 

 

MCMAHON:
Certainly from what I’ve seen in terms of the statements, it’s been asked at State Department briefings about these developments, about the blocking of the Move Forward party, and they have been issuing in the language of the State Department briefing, the standard, “We have faith in our Thai partners to sort this out for them and we support the democratic process there,” but people in the State Department have also said they are watching the latest round of developments in terms of blocking the lead vote-getter with what they say is concern. I would imagine that it also includes a great deal of context that we’re not hearing about, Carla, but I think as you say, it’s very high stakes. The administration has gone out and said democracy promotion is going to be a priority, and yet it’s finding again and again how difficult that is to be public with that when it needs countries that are let’s say, either struggling with democracy or even illiberal and they need it to support other ends. 

 

So I think they would love to see a democratic Thailand emerge, and again, I think there are probably discussions going on and I’m going to continue to look for nuances in the way the State Department talks. You’ve mentioned Secretary Blinken. These affairs are also watched closely by places like Australia. He could be hearing a lot from them about their concern about Thailand, as well. And so the wrap-up of this trip could have a fresh set of issues that the State Department is going to be trying to prioritize, Carla, but it is a good point. There’s been no strong sort of U.S. leaning on the Thai authorities as of yet. 

 

Well, Carla, we’ve talked our way into the audience figure of the week portion of the podcast, and we’re going to see a theme emerging in a minute. This is the part where listeners can vote on every Tuesday and Wednesday at CFR_org’s Instagram story. This week, Carla, our audience selected, “China’s Qin Gang Removed After Seven Months.” What’s going on with China’s foreign minister? 

 

ROBBINS:
No one knows, and the announcement that he had been replaced only came a month after he disappeared from view. And yesterday, after the announcement came, they removed all mention from him from the foreign ministry website, including any pictures or mentions of past diplomatic meetings with senior officials. So this is a classic airbrushing of history move from a communist party and country, but we really don’t know. At one point, the foreign ministry claimed he had failed to show up for an ASEAN meeting in Indonesia because of health reason. And there are rumors that he may have been involved in an inappropriate relationship while he was ambassador in Washington that might have got him in trouble, but nobody really knows what’s going on and maybe they’ll never tell us what’s going on. 

 

What makes this all the more puzzling is that Qin, who was comparatively young for a Chinese leader, he’s fifty-seven, had a very powerful patron. He leapt over a whole bunch of people to become foreign minister and only after slightly less than a year and a half as ambassador in Washington, because of the patronage of Xi Jinping. Now, does it matter that he’s out? There was somebody a lot more powerful in foreign policy, as we’ve talked about before. Wang Yi has stepped in, perhaps temporarily, perhaps for longer, we don’t know, and he’s the country’s most senior diplomat. He outranked Qin because he’s head of foreign policy for the party and he had the job before Qin anyway, so probably not a lot of change in policy. And there were all sorts of rumors that there was a great rivalry there, as well. 

 

That said, relationships do matter. Qin was in Washington. He had some relationships with U.S. officials and interestingly enough, he traveled around the country a lot, as well. And if it’s all going to be all Wang Yi all the time, it’s going to be one fewer person for U.S. diplomats to interact with. And as it is, we have very few interlocutors on the Chinese side, so we don’t know and it could choke off even more conversation. 

 

MCMAHON:
Do we have any sense whether this revives or sidelines the so-called wolf warrior diplomacy that’s been getting so much attention from the Chinese side in terms of the sort of aggressive assertiveness and comments and other things?

 

ROBBINS:
Well, Wang Yi obviously has been very tough-sounding, but Qin was very much a wolf warrior, as well. There were a lot of people who thought that he was going to be committed to improving relationships with the United States and maybe because of that expectation, his rhetoric when he was in Washington was so wolf warrior-like. But yes, there are predictions that wolf warrior on the rise as well, but once again, Wang Yi was always in charge anyway, on it.

 

I think the great speculation is why was somebody who was so much an acolyte of Xi suddenly summarily pulled from view, and what does this mean about the downgrading or further downgrading of the foreign ministry? They have really handled this just absolutely terribly. They haven’t been able to answer a single question and they really are the interlocutors with the outside world. They had a press conference about this. You can imagine the poor spokesperson who had to answer question after question after question, or more to the point was asked question after question after question and could offer absolutely no answer about what had happened here, why was Qin pulled, where is he? And then when the transcript came out of that press briefing, there were no mention of either those questions or the failure to answer. 

 

MCMAHON:
Huh, imagine that. 

 

ROBBINS:
Yeah.

 

MCMAHON:
Yeah. It does sort of contrast with this steady sort of messaging from China that the U.S. has this chaotic political system and then look at all the rancor and divisiveness and they should really take a page out of the Chinese model, where in fact the Chinese model has its rockiness, as well. 

 

ROBBINS:
Well, they’re very good at yanking people off the stage when they want to, but that usually happens at a lower level. This is a pretty high level one, and particularly for one who was so favored by Xi. 

 

MCMAHON:
I’m still wondering what happened to Hu Jintao at the big Congress last year, too, but-

 

ROBBINS:
Boy, and that was on camera. 

 

MCMAHON:
That was on camera.

 

ROBBINS:
And we got to watch that one. 

 

MCMAHON:
Well, that’s our look at The World Next Week, especially the world through the China prism. Here are some other stories to keep an eye on. The United States takes over the rotating UN Security Council presidency. The Catholic World Youth Day Festival begins in Lisbon, Portugal. And, China adds to export controls on rare minerals needed for semiconductor production. 

 

ROBBINS:
Please subscribe to The World Next Week on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a review while you’re at it. We really do appreciate the feedback. The publications mentioned in this episode as well as a transcript of our conversation are listed on the podcast page for The World Next Week on CFR.org. Please note that opinions expressed on The World Next Week are solely those of the hosts, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. 

 

Today’s program was produced by Ester Fang with Director of Podcasting Gabrielle Sierra. And special thanks to Sinet Adous and Jiwon Lim for their research assistance. Our theme music is provided by Miguel Herrero and licensed under Creative Commons. And this is Carla Robbins saying so long, and I have yet to be airbrushed from history.

 

MCMAHON:
And this is Bob McMahon saying goodbye and be careful out there.

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