Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Naval Deployments, Exercises, and the Geometry of Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific

By David Scott

From March to June 2019 naval diplomacy and an underlying strategic geometry was on show as India, Australia, France, and Japan deployed across and around the Indo-Pacific. All of them were involved in operating with each other, with the U.S., and with other actors in the region like Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) in particular was a recurring theme throughout the exercises.

Indian Deployments

India carried out significant deployments in the Indian Ocean, in the shape of the AUSINDEX exercises with Australia in April and the VARUNA exercises with France in May. Both of these exercises were conducted with greater Indian strength amid implicit concerns over China.

The AUSINDEX exercise was conducted with Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 Group and took place from 2–16 April. The exercises were described by the Indian Navy as “advanced warship drills.” Organized by the Eastern Fleet, the Indian Navy was represented by the multi-role destroyer INS Ranvijay, the multi-role stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, the missile corvette INS Kora, the ASW corvette INS Kiltan, and the submarine INS Sindhukirti. In addition, the Indian Navy sent Dornier maritime patrol aircraft, Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers, and P-8I ASW aircraft.

As these bilateral exercises with Australia were taking place in the Bay of Bengal, other bilateral exercises were being conducted elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. On 15 April, anti-submarine exercises were also carried out near Diego Garcia between an Indian P-8I ASW aircraft, based at Indian Naval Station Rajali in southern India, a U.S. P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance. This was the first ASW drill since India and the U.S. signed the Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in September 2018. In turn, on 24 April, two Indian Navy P-8I ASW aircraft and an Indian submarine carried out anti-submarine drills in the Arabian Sea with two Japanese P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. This marks the third iteration of the bilateral Indo-Japanese ASW exercise.

The VARUNA exercises with France’s Task Force 473 were conducted in two phases. Phase 1, from 1–10 May in the Arabian Sea, involved India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, the destroyer INS Mumbai, the frigate INS Tarkash, the submarine INS Shankul, and the fleet tanker INS Deepakh carrying out various exercises, including anti-submarine drills. This was the largest ever VARUNA exercise. Phase 2 from 22–25 May witnessed another Indian submarine, INS Kalvari, carrying out submarines drills with a French submarine off the Djibouti coast by the Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

During this time the guided-missile destroyer, INS Kolkata and the replenishment ship INS Shakti were dispatched for eastern duties from April to May 2019. Various cooperative initiatives were pursued. They moored from 21–23  April at Qingdao for China’s International Naval Review, and the Indian Navy was clear that “the visit of Indian Navy’s most potent destroyer and versatile fleet support ship showcases India’s prowess, reach and sustainability.” From Qingdao the Indian ships went to Busan for an extended friendly port call and discussions with the South Korean Navy from 28–30 April, before undertaking cooperative ADMM-Plus maritime exercises off South Korea from 1–2 May and then in the South China Sea from 9–12 May. On its completion, the Indian vessels went down to Singapore to attend the closing ceremony of the ADMM-Plus exercises on 14 May and participate (alongside HMAS Canberra) in the International Maritime Defense Expo 2019 in Singapore from 16–18 May.

However, more controversial deployments were witnessed in the South China Sea by INS Kolkata and INS Shakti. Firstly, they carried out bilateral maritime exercise with the Vietnamese Navy from 13–16 April at Cam Ranh Bay, a “significant step” for the Indian Navy; the first having been initiated in 2018. Secondly, on returning to the South China Sea they participated in a week-long “Group Sail” including formation maneuvering drills from 3-9 May with Japan’s Indo-Pacific Deployment (IPD19) carrier group, the U.S., and the Philippine navies. Thirdly, from 19–22 May the two Indian vessels, joined by an Indian P-8l long range surveillance plane, carried out anti-submarine and anti-air SIMBEX exercises in the South China Sea with the Singaporean Navy and Air Force, with the Indian Navy keen to emphasize that “for SIMBEX 2019, the IN has deployed its finest assets.”

Indian Navy destroyer INS Kolkata (Indian Navy photo)

Australian Deployments

Australia’s centerpiece deployment formation known as Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPD19), now in its third iteration, was conducted from February to May 2019. Defense Minister Christopher Pyne explained that “in 2019, the focus of Indo-Pacific Endeavour will be the Indian Ocean, in recognition of the Indian Ocean region’s rapid economic transformations and increasing strategic competition” – a reference to the growing presence of China, and of growing India-China and U.S.-China friction. The political stress given by Pyne was significant, that “engagement with India – a key strategic partner for Australia – will be the cornerstone of Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019.”

The naval group was led by Australia’s flagship, the helicopter landing carrier HMAS Canberra; supported by the guided missile frigate HMAS Newcastle, the anti-submarine/anti-aircraft frigate HMAS Parramatta, and the resupply tanker HMAS Success. The carrier group’s first port of call was Sri Lanka on 22 March, where the Canberra and Newcastle went to Colombo and the Parramatta and Success went to Tricalomone. This was Australia’s biggest ever naval visit to Sri Lanka, and perhaps represented a tacit welcome to Sri Lanka’s switch from its overtly pro-China stance under former President Raja Rajapaksa.

Australia’s eyes then turned to India, and the AUSINDEX 2019 exercise running from 2–16 April. This was the third such bilateral exercise between Australia and India, the largest ever, and which involved ASW drills for the first time. The IPE group was joined by the submarine HMAS Collins and an Australian P-8A maritime patrol aircraft. After the event, Australia’s High Commissioner to India, Harinder Sidhu considered AUSINDEX 2019 to have been “a landmark moment in our relationship […] building the Australia-India Partnership in the Indo-Pacific.” Meanwhile HMAS Toowoomba was detailed for a six-day visit from 10–15 April to Chennai, the navy base headquarters of India’s Southern Command.

Subsequently, from 16–22 April, HMAS Toowoomba and the submarine HMAS Collins took part in quadrilateral exercises in the Bay of Bengal involving the French Task Force 473 headed by their aircraft carrier the FS Charles de Gaulle, the Japanese Indo-Pacific Deployment 2019 group lead by their helicopter carrier JS Izumo, and also featured the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence.

On 21 April, the Indo-Pacific Endeavour units reached Malaysia; HMAS Canberra and Newcastle visiting Port Klang, while HMAS Success visited Langkawi and then Port Klang. From 27–30 April HMAS Canberra and HMAS Newcastle paid supportive port calls to Phuket in Thailand, demonstrating humanitarian assistance capabilities. A small contingent of U.S. Marines embarked on the Canberra for the rest of the journey.

Australian units were then involved in the South China Sea, but from 13–16 May, HMAS Canberra was moored at Singapore, on show for the biannual International Maritime Defense Expo 2019 organized by the Singaporean Navy. Subsequently, on 18 May HMAS Canberra and Newcastle arrived at Jakarta to carry out further humanitarian work. HMAS Canberra’s return to Darwin, on the north Australian coast on 26 May marked the formal end of the IPE deployment, which Defense Minister Linda Reynolds was quick to emphasize that this was “Australia’s flagship maritime activity” at the Shangri La Dialogue on June 2.

In the South China Sea, the participation of HMAS Success in the replenishment of other vessels involved in the multinational ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) naval training exercise phase held in the Gulf of Thailand in early May was uncontroversial. More controversial was the deployment to Vietnam. From 7–10 May, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Newcastle docked in Cam Ranh, conducting a series of engagement activities and training exercises with Vietnamese counterparts. This was the first appearance of Vietnam on Australia’s IPE itineraries. In the South China Sea, both HMAS Canberra and Parramatta were trailed by Chinese warships, demanding prior notification of Australian transit (which Australia refuses to give as a matter of principle) with observers recording laser flashing from accompanying Chinese fishing vessels disrupting helicopter operations being carried out by HMAS Canberra. It was significant that on 20 May, returning from sanctions patrolling against North Korea in the East China Sea, the guided missile frigate HMAS Melbourne, along with the American guided-missile destroyer USS Preble, conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Commander Joint Task Force 661 Air Commodore Richard Owen, AM is greeted by Major Thang from the Vietnamese People’s Army on the arrival of HMAS Canberra into Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, during Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019. (CPL Kylie Gibson, Australian Department of Defence)

Coming over from the IPE19 task force, HMAS Parramatta was then joined by HMAS Melbourne and the submarine HMAS Farncomb to participate in the newly formed  PACIFIC VANGUARD exercises, the first of its kind, held from 22–28 May off Guam with U.S., Japanese, and South Korean naval units. These involved live fire exercises, anti-air operations, and ASW drills. The Australian Navy fleet commander Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead stated that “Exercise Pacific Vanguard involved four likeminded regional partners working together to support our shared views of a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

French Deployments

French Indo-Pacific deployments focused mostly around the Task Force 473 carrying out Operation Clemenceau across the Northern Indian Ocean and South China Sea from April to May. In terms of assets, Task Force 473 is France’s leading power projection battle group. The 2019 group core was made up of the Charles De Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the anti-air frigate FS Forbin, and the anti-submarine frigate FS Latouche-Tréville, joined by other French elements (and other nations) at various points. In terms of purpose, on 11 March France stated that “boasting assets related to freedom of navigation, the TF 473 is a politico-military tool, which will deploy in areas of strategic interest, from the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific.”

The Task Force was preceded from March–April by the Jeanne d’Arc Mission, comprising France’s second most powerful asset, the helicopter carrier FS Tonnerre, accompanied by the frigate FS La Fayette, which deployed down the African littoral from Djibouti to South Africa. President Macron had also warned about Chinese influence in the region during his own visit to Djibouti in March 2019, as he also had in his visit to New Caledonia in May 2018. Elsewhere, FS Vendémiaire’s transit of the Taiwan Strait on 6 April, on its way from New Caledonia to take part with the U.S. and Japanese navies in sanctions enforcement in the East China Sea against North Korea, attracted immediate Chinese ire, and the disinvitation of the Vendémiaire from attending China’s International Navy Review held at Qingdao on 23 April.

Escorted by the Australian frigate HMAS Ballarat, the French task force moved across the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea, where it was joined by the multi-mission frigate FS Provence. There, on 25 April drills were carried out off the coast of Oman with the Canadian frigate HMCS Regina and tanker HMCS Asterix.

From 1–10 May, the Task Force was joined by the nuclear attack submarine FS Amethyste, to carry out VARUNA exercises with India in the Arabian Sea, off Goa and Karwar, which included live fire, anti-air, and ASW drills. This represented the largest ever France-India exercise, with each side fielding aircraft carrier battle groups. FS Amethyste then re-deployed westward to carry out submarine operations with India off the Djibouti coast, by the Bab el-Mandeb choke point between the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

Meanwhile the French carrier group had gone further eastward to the Bay of Bengal. First, the group escorts FS Forbin, FS Marne, FS Latouche-Treville, and FS Provence carried out ASW drills with the American submarine USS Hawaii on 14 May. Then from 16–22 May, substantive quadrilateral LA PEROUSE exercises, including live fire drills, were conducted by the whole Task Force Group with units from Australia, Japan, and the United States. Context for such operations were provided on 29 by the Ministry of Defense’s release of its paper France’s Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific, which argued that with such deployments “France seeks to cement its posture as a regional power of the Indo-Pacific.”

FS Forbin was dispatched to Vietnam from 28 May to 3 June, which included air defense exercises with the Vietnamese Navy. Simultaneously, the main group was dispatched from 28 May to 3 June to Singapore. On 3 June anti-submarine and anti-air exercises were carried out with the Singaporean Navy and Air Force. Further joint drills were carried out between Task Force 473 (without the Forbin) and the American amphibious assault ship USS Boxer in the Andaman Sea from 7–9 June, as the Task Group was returning back from Singapore via Goa and then Djibouti.

This Singapore sojourn overlapped with the Shangri-La Dialogue where France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly emphasized the role of the Task Force Group as a “mighty instrument of power projection” whose exercises with India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. had exemplified the “emergence of an Indo-Pacific axis.” On board the Charles de Gaulle, Parly told the crew “you affirm our status as a maritime power” and “your presence in Singapore contributes to our influence in this key region.”

Japanese Deployments

Japan’s centerpiece deployment was its Indo-Pacific Deployment 2019 (IPD19) from 30 April to 10 July. The Japanese Navy (the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force or JMSDF) stated its mission as being to “conduct joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific region with the navies and other armed forces of other countries to improve its tactical capabilities and strengthen its coordination with foreign forces.” This was the third iteration, following the previous helicopter carrier-led Indo-South East Asia Deployment (ISEAD) in 2017 and 2018. The 2019 IPD19 deployment centered on the helicopter carrier JS Izumo, accompanied by the destroyer JS Murasame. Both the Izumo and Kaga helicopter carriers are set for conversion to fixed wing F-35B aircraft operations, a conversion driven in part by China’s own aircraft carrier program.

The IPD19 had been immediately preceded on 24 April with two Japanese P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft carrying out ASW drills with two Indian Navy P-8I Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance (LRMR) ASW aircraft and an Indian submarine in the Arabian Sea. Southward, the destroyer JS Samidare carried out exercises in the Maldives on 24 April.

With regard to the IPD19 force, the Izumo and Murasame had originally planned joining the first phase of the ADMM-Plus exercises being hosted by South Korea on 1-2 May, as did India. However, the downturn in relations with South Korea led to Japan deciding to not join in the ADMM-Plus exercise. Instead from 1-7 May, the Japanese carrier group conducted drills for a week in the South China Sea with the U.S. (USS William P Lawrence), Indian (the destroyer INS Kolkata and the tanker INS Shakti) and Philippine (BRP Andres Bonifacio) navies. From 9–12 May the Japanese group was involved in Phase 2 of the ADMM-Plus exercises in the Gulf of Thailand, arriving in Singapore on the 13 May. Simultaneously, JS Samidare arrived in Manila for a three-day goodwill visit from 17–20 May.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 9, 2019) Ships from ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus navies sail in formation during ADMM-Plus Maritime Security Field Training Exercise 2019. (Photo courtesy of Singapore Ministry of Defence)

Transiting Singapore, on 18 May the IPD group carried out exercises with the American guided missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence in the Strait of Malacca. The Japanese group then joined up with the French Task Force 473, to carry out quadrilateral exercises from 19–22 May which also involved Australia’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 flotilla (the frigate HMAS Toowoomba and the submarine HMAS Collins) and America’s USS William P. Lawrence. Rear Admiral Hiroshi Egawa commented that “working with high-end navies, this exercise will contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region”; while Japan’s Ministry of Defense argued that the navy “continues to strengthen further cooperation with U.S., France and Australia based on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision.” In the wake of the quadrilateral format, from 23–24 May the Japanese group carried out further bilateral operations with India’s stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, including tactical maneuvers and ASW exercises. This was followed by friendly port calls to Malaysia from 26–29 May.

Further out in the Western Pacific, the Japanese Navy dispatched JS Ariake and JS Asahi to participate in the PACIFIC VANGUARD exercises held off Guam from 22–28 May with U.S., Australian and South Korean units. Japanese participation with South Korean units was a useful umbrella to get over their ongoing bilateral coolness.

Pointed action was manifest from 10–12 June as the Izumo and Murasame were joined by another Japanese destroyer, JS Akebono, in drills in the South China Sea with the U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan. Then the Izumo and Akebono conducted OPERATION KADEX interoperatibility drills from 13–15 June with Canada’s HMCS Regina and MV Asterix. It can be noted that these Canadian units had earlier exercised with the French Task force 473 in the Arabian Sea. Subsequently from 15–17 June, the Izumo and Murasame were moored at Cam Ranh Bay, a visit concluded by bilateral exercising with the Vietnamese Navy on 17 June. This extended South China Sea itinerary was concluded with the arrival of the IzumoMurasame, and Akebono on 23 June at Muara port in Brunei, and on 30 June at Subic Bay in the Philippines, complete with further bilateral drills. The State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kentaro Sonoura was clear that these South China Sea drills were there to foster “stable and secure trade and passage in the Indo-Pacific region which are precisely the core principles of Japan’s vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Overall Significance

The strategic geometry represented in these varied naval deployments was flexible, reflecting the varied bilateral networking and interrelated multilateralism that has come to predominate in the Indo-Pacific as countries respond to the growing presence and challenge of China across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. New quadrilateral formats emerged across the Indo-Pacific from the various deployments in the shape of the France-Australia-Japan-U.S. drills in the Bay of Bengal, the Japan-India-U.S.-Philippine drills in the South China Sea, and the Australia-Japan-U.S.-South Korea drills in the Western Pacific. The U.S. “hubs and spoke” containment system has been replaced by a more diffuse crisscrossing “network” of arrangements that tacitly have China in mind.

David Scott is an Indo-Pacific analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, and regular lecturer at the NATO Defense College. A prolific writer on maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

Featured Image: A Task Group consisting of four ships and a submarine from the Royal Australian Navy, enhanced by a Royal Australian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft, are visiting India for AUSINDEX 2019, the major, bilateral Navy-to-Navy exchange between Australia and India. (Photo by: LSIS Steven Thomson, Australian Ministry of Defence)

A Tale of Three Speeches: How Xi Jinping’s 40th Anniversary Speech Marks A Departure

This article originally featured on China Leadership Monitor and is republished with permission. It originally published under the title, “A Tale of Three Speeches: How Xi’s Speech Marking the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening Differs from those of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.” Read it in its original form here.

By Minxin Pei

Xi Jinping’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of reform and opening on December 18, 2018 recapitulates the substantial ideological and policy changes he has initiated since coming to power in late 2012.  A comparison of this speech with speeches by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao on the 20th and 30th anniversary of reform and opening respectively reveals significant differences in terms of ideological rhetoric and substantive policy issues.  Whereas the speeches by Jiang and Hu adhere to the basic ideological and policy guidelines established by Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping’s speech underscores his personal authority and political vision.  Most significantly, Xi’s speech emphasizes the supremacy of Communist Party centralized and unified strongman rule and China’s bold and expansive role in international affairs.  The uncompromising tone of his speech suggests that it is unlikely that Xi will make substantial changes to his domestic and foreign policies despite the strong headwinds both domestically and internationally.

Parsing speeches by top Chinese leaders for clues about their ideological leanings and policy preferences recalls the now much-derided Kremlinology.  The torrent of information pouring out of China in the post-Mao reform era casts doubts about the utility of textual analysis.  Yet, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General Secretary Xi Jinping increases the intensity of its control over the flow of information, scrutiny of the language in pronouncements by the top leaders is likely to provide useful insights into their ideological mindsets and policy priorities 

The speech delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping on December 18, 2018, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress, is a case in point.1  During the six years since becoming party leader, Xi has instituted radical policy changes affecting the distribution of power, security for ruling elites, ideology, state-society relations, and foreign policy.  An implicit rule of Chinese politics is that such changes must be elevated to a new political narrative and accorded fresh ideological legitimacy in a carefully crafted political speech delivered on a key occasion, such as a national CCP congress or an anniversary of a major historic event. The political symbolism and substance of Xi’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of reform and opening cannot be overstated.  Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi’s two immediate predecessors, also delivered highly publicized speeches celebrating, respectively, the 20th and 30th anniversary of the historic Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress.

On the surface, these anniversary speeches may not appear to be fertile ground for mining evidence of the differences between the ideas and policies of successive top leaders during the post-Deng era.  However, despite their dry language, they nevertheless yield useful clues about the personal, ideological, and policy differences among  different generations of top leaders because such high-profile anniversary speeches are drafted by an assigned writing team and typically undergo several revisions to ensure that the speeches both fully and accurately reflect the thinking of the top leadership.  The final draft is reviewed, edited, and approved by the top leader himself.

In the following pages, we will dissect the rhetorical and substantive differences between Xi’s speech on December 18th and the speeches by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao on similar occasions in 1998 and 2008.2  We first examine the subtle differences in their references to key terms and in their phraseology to both describe past policies and leaders and to spell out the party’s bottom-line positions on reform.  We then focus on the noteworthy differences in the policy statements contained in these speeches.  Specifically, such statements are included in the section devoted to “lessons learned” from the previous decades.  In reality, these lessons, typically numbering about ten points, not only summarize the leader’s own interpretation of the achievements of the previous decades but also describe the guiding principles for future domestic and foreign policies.  We conclude with an analysis of the implications of the observed differences between Xi’s speech and those of his two predecessors.

Rhetorical Differences

High-profile speeches by top leaders follow implicit rhetorical rules.  In particular, they are supposed to make obligatory references to the official ideology and the past leaders and their achievements.   The CCP’s fundamental political principles and policies, such as those expressed in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping (the so-called four “cardinal principles”), must also be reiterated.3 On the whole, the rhetoric in the three speeches under examination may not seem significantly different in these respects.  Nevertheless, we can still detect subtle and non-trivial rhetorical differences that indicate how Xi Jinping regards his own status in the pantheon of CCP leaders.

Despite the obligatory nature of such references, the frequency of invoking the orthodox Communist ideology as well as previous Chinese leaders and their ideological doctrines can serve as a useful proxy for the degree of ideological legitimacy the present leader attaches to the orthodox ideology and to his predecessors.  A speaker who believes that his policies are more faithful to the orthodox ideology and to the doctrines of his predecessors will more frequently refer to the said ideology, doctrine, and leader.  When there are fewer such references, the speaker is generally less ideologically beholden to former doctrines and leaders.  It is also reasonable to assume that the leader who makes the least number of references to his predecessors is implicitly hoping to highlight his own status and contributions.

Based on this assumption, an examination of the number of references to Marxism-Leninism, Mao, and Deng Xiaoping in the three speeches under examination would reveal substantial differences in how Jiang, Hu, and Xi perceived their ideological faithfulness.  Of the three speeches, each leader made about the same number of references to Mao (four for Jiang, and five each for Hu and Xi).  This may suggest that all three leaders were aware of the potential political peril of excessive references and homage to Mao’s ideas and legacy.  Nevertheless, a close reading of the assessment of Mao in the three speeches reveals subtle and important differences between Xi and his two predecessors.

In the speeches by Jiang and Hu, the assessments of Mao’s contributions are almost identical—both brief and even perfunctory.  There is no hint of rethinking the Maoist legacy. By comparison, Xi’s speech represents perhaps the most important—and positive -—revision of Mao’s legacy. Xi not only devotes more space (one long paragraph) to describe Mao’s achievements but also adds key terms to put a positive spin on the disastrous Maoist period.  The most notable section reads, “In the process of exploration, despite serious detours, the party gained unique and original theoretical results and monumental achievements, providing precious experience, theoretical preparations, and material foundations for creating Chinese-style socialism in the near historic era.” (在探索过程中,虽然经历了严重曲折,但党在社会主义革命和建设中取得的独创性理论成果和巨大成就,为在新的历史时期开创中国特色社会主义提供了宝贵经验、理论准备、物质基础).4 Critically, Xi’s speech portrays the Maoist period positively as a “process of exploration” — a far cry from the phrase “the decade of calamities” (十年浩劫) that the party usually uses to describe the Cultural Revolution.  Additionally, by linking the “theoretical” and “material” achievements of the Maoist period to the “new historic era,” Xi’s speech endorses the view that the Maoist period and the post-Maoist period are inseparable and cannot be used to “negate one another,” a point that Xi first advanced in January 2013.5 

In terms of references to Marxism-Leninism, Hu’s speech contains the most references to Marxism-Leninism (24), whereas Jiang and Xi invoke Marxism-Leninism ten times and eight times, respectively.  As for Deng, Jiang makes 18 references to him whereas Hu and Xi refer to him eight and six times respectively.  These notable differences in invocating the sources of ideological legitimacy and inspiration may be interpreted as Jiang’s desire to be seen as Deng’s faithful heir whereas Hu may have been seeking to present himself as a more faithful adherent to orthodox Marxism-Leninism.  In the case of Xi, he appears to be far more confident in presenting himself as a leader less dependent on the traditional sources of ideological legitimacy.

Xi’s efforts to set himself apart from his two immediate predecessors are also apparent in other parts of his speech.  For example, norms of modesty and political constraints probably prevented Jiang and Hu from lauding the achievements of their first terms, as there exist no such references.  But Xi’s speech contains a long section listing the accomplishments of his first term.  A rhetorical deference to the previous leaders is notably different as well.  Both Jiang and Hu specifically salute the achievements of their immediate predecessors.6 In contrast, Xi does not salute the achievements under Hu’s leadership.  In referring to previous leaders, both Jiang and Hu use two key phrases, “collective leadership” (集体领导) and “as its core” (核心) to describe their predecessors.  Xi replaces “as its core” with “as its main representative” (为主要代表) when referring to Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu.  The key phrase “collective leadership” has completely disappeared from Xi’s speech.

These rhetorical changes were evidently designed to signal Xi’s power and status.  Because the official Chinese media never drops the phrase “as its core” when describing Xi’s position in the party, any removal of this phrase from descriptions of his predecessors may suggest that Xi occupies a truly unique position.  The elimination of the phrase “collective leadership” from his speech also underscores today’s political reality of strongman rule at the apex of party leadership today.

Substantive Differences

Xi’s speech also differs from those by Jiang and Hu on key ideological and policy issues. 

1. Interpreting the past and setting the direction for the future

In the second half of the anniversary speech, each leader lists the most important policies pursued by the party and credit these policies with bringing about the achievements of the prior decades.  A quick examination shows how Xi differs from his predecessors in this regard.  Jiang and Hu credit the same principle—Marxism-Leninism—as the most important factor contributing to the party’s accomplishments.  In contrast, Xi singles out the supremacy of the party and “centralized unified leadership of the party” (党的集中统一领导) as the most important factors, relegating Marxism-Leninism to third place.7 Whereas Jiang and Hu focus on the application of Marxism-Leninism to China’s reality, in a full paragraph Xi amplifies the supremacy of the party.  In this paragraph, which sets the direction “for the road ahead” (前进道路上), Xi emphasizes “we must strengthen the “four consciousness” and “four self-confidence” and “resolutely safeguard the authority and centralized leadership” firm adherence to the party center’s authority and centralized unified leadership”—code words demanding loyalty to his leadership (two of the four types of “consciousness” are “consciousness of the rules and consciousness of compliance.8 Since “firm adherence to the authority of the party center and to centralized unified leadership” clearly implies loyalty to Xi, the elevation of centralized personal leadership to the top political principles is a significant departure from the collective leadership under Jiang and Hu.  Notably, Xi appears to justify centralized personal leadership by invoking the dangers lurking in the future.  In the same paragraph, he warns that there “will certainly be various risks and challenges, even an encounter with perilous storms” (惊涛骇浪)—a phrase that has led many analysts to wonder about his meaning.9 

We can also gain a better understanding of Xi’s emphasis on the supremacy of the party by comparing how his speech treats the sensitive topic of political reform limits. In the speeches by Jiang and Hu marking the anniversary of reform and opening, the two Chinese leaders pay only lip service to reform of the political system (政治体制改革), a task initially introduced by Deng in the early 1980s.  Jiang devotes a full paragraph to political reform and declares that the party will “actively, gradually, and appropriately promote” such a reform.  One key lesson or successful policy listed in Hu’s speech is the “combination of promotion of economic foundations and reform of the super-structure and the continuous promotion of reform of the political system.”

Remarkably, in Xi’s speech, the key phrase, “political system reform,” appears only once—in the section summarizing the achievements of the past four decades.  In the most important section listing the key policies contributing to the party’s success and the guiding principles for the future, not only does the phrase “political system reform” completely disappear but there is also no equivalent section dealing with any future reform of key political institutions.

Equally remarkable is Xi’s emphatic statement on the boundaries of reform.  To be sure, both Jiang and Hu set such boundaries in their speeches.  Comparatively, however, Jiang uses the least harsh language to spell out what kinds of reforms the party will tolerate.  He insists that the party will not “shaken, weaken, or discard” (动摇,削弱和丢掉) these reforms at any time; we must adhere to “socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics,” and not copy “the mode of the West’s political system should not be copied” (照搬西方的政治制度模式).  In Hu’s speech, the language setting the boundaries of reform seems harsher as he describes a reform path that will result in a fundamental change in the party’s status and as an” evil path toward replacing flags” (改旗易帜的邪路), even though he balances this language with a declaration that the party will not return to a path of self-imposed isolation and ossification (封闭僵化的老路).10 

In the first section of Xi’s speech summarizing the party’s past successes, he repeats Hu’s language about not returning to a path of isolation and ossification or embarking on an evil path leading to a loss of power.  More notably, in spelling out the future direction in the same section, he presents the clearest marker about what can and what cannot be reformed .  In answering his own question of “what changed, how to change” must be based on “how to reform the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” Xi declares: “We will resolutely reform what should and can be reformed, but we will resolutely not reform what should not be and cannot be reformed” (该改的、能改的我们坚决改,不该改的、不能改的坚决不改).11 

2. Definition of Chinese socialism today

Since the CCP’s 13th Congress in 1987, arguably the most liberal congress in CCP history, the party has defined Chinese socialism as the “initial stage of socialism.”  Jiang Zemin’s 1998 speech emphasizes that “China today is and will for a long time continue to be at the initial stage of socialism” (当今中国还处在并将长期处在社会主义初级阶段). Hu Jintao’s speech ten years later reiterates this line and elaborates on its meaning—as long as China remains at the initial stage of socialism, it will prioritize economic development, maintain reform and opening, and focus on domestic priorities.12 Significantly, in Xi Jinping’s speech the “initial stage of socialism” is formally replaced by “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (新时代中国特色社会主义).13  This semantic change, easy to miss, has profound ideological and policy implications.  Ideologically, it authorizes Xi’s political vision and ideas, now collectively known as “the thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (新时代中国特色社会主义思想), with the status of the party’s new guiding principles.  Substantively, this new formulation also justifies Xi’ vision of China as a great world power and his ambitious foreign-policy agenda.  Although his anniversary speech does not elaborate on this vision, it is fully developed in his political report to the CCP’s 19th Congress in late 2017.  The overall task of this “new era,” as Xi declares in his political report, is to “realize socialist modernization and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and . . . build a . . . great modern socialist country.”14  The most important policy implication in the difference between the “initial stage” and the “new era” is that China will have a new objective—seeking to be a global superpower.

3. Foreign policy and relations with the outside world

Probably the most notable policy difference between Xi’s speech and those of his predecessors is his foreign-policy vision.  In both tone and substance, Jiang’s speech reiterates the well-known foreign-policy guidelines established by Deng.  A subtle but significant deviation from Deng’s foreign policy can already be detected in Hu’s speech, which contains code language indicating a more defiant stance toward the United States, but by and large Hu remains defensive and cautious in nature.  In comparison, Xi’s speech unambiguously demonstrates a far more ambitious and proactive foreign policy, representing a fundamental departure from the foreign policy enunciated by Jiang some twenty years earlier.

For example, Jiang emphasizes that “The primary task of our external work is for peace and to serve socialist modernization” (我们对外工作的首要任务,就是争取和平,为社会主义现代化建设服务).  Jiang then practically repeats Deng’s foreign policy dicta— when “handling international affairs, it is essential to adhere to the principle of observing things soberly, dealing with problems calmly, doing what ought to be done, and never meeting them head-on so that we can seize opportunities to develop ourselves, accomplish the work at home” (坚持按照冷静观察、沉着应付、有所作为、决不当头的方针处理国际事务,以利抓住时机发展自己,把国内的事情办好). Hu attempts to strike a balance between adhering to the Dengist principle of subordinating foreign policy to domestic development and extending Chinese external influence as Chinese power and interests had greatly expanded since 1998.15 Hu calls to “make all-round plans for the overall domestic and international situations” (统筹好国内国际两个大局) and he adds a coded language suggesting a more assertive foreign policy aimed at challenging American unipolarity.  Hu’s foreign-policy objectives include to ”actively promote world multipolarization, promote democratization in international relations, respect variety in the world, and oppose hegemonism and power politics” (积极促进世界多极化、推进国际关系民主化,尊重世界多样性,反对霸权主义和强权政治). Compared with Jiang’s speech, which contains only the code phrase “opposition to hegemonism,” Hu’s speech presents a substantive departure from the Dengist foreign policy.  Nevertheless, the tone and content of Hu’s foreign-policy principles and objectives are defensive and do not indicate an expansive vision for future Chinese foreign policy.

The second half of Xi Jinping’s speech includes a section dealing with foreign policy.  This section indicates how much has changed in the Chinese foreign-policy vision and objectives during the two decades since Jiang’s speech.  It is difficult to detect traces of Deng’s foreign-policy principles.  In setting China’s foreign-policy course, Xi reiterates some of Hu’s coded language, but he is much more emphatic.  He declares that: “We must respect the right to choose the path of development of peoples, the maintenance of international fairness and justice, promote the democratization of international relations, against his own will on others, oppose interference in other countries’ internal affairs, against bullying” (我们要尊重各国人民自主选择发展道路的权利,维护国际公平正义,倡导国际关系民主化,反对把自己的意志强加于人,反对干涉别国内政,反对以强凌弱). The most striking part in this section is Xi’s unequivocal endorsement of a bold vision of China’s international role in general and of a long-term objective to reshape international relations.  As a “responsible great power,” China will “play the role of a responsible big country, support of the majority of developing countries, and actively participate in the global governance system reform and construction” (支持广大发展中国家发展,积极参与全球治理体系改革和建设).   He further stresses the long-term strategic importance of his signature program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  According to Xi, China … “will use the BRI as a major foundation of its new foreign policy to create, with others, a new platform of international cooperation” (我们要以共建 “一带一路” 为重点,同各方一道打造国际合作新平台).16

So What?

What do these observed and, in most cases, significant differences tell us about Xi’s ideological and policy preferences and agenda? 

For starters, this comparative exercise illustrates the nature and pace of changes in political vision and policy during the last two decades.  If there are subtle but real differences in Hu’s speech as compared to Jiang’s, the differences are largely evolutionary in nature.  But the same cannot be said of Xi’s speech, which represents a radical departure from the speeches by his predecessors in terms of both tone and substance.  For those familiar with the speaking styles of the three leaders, it is not difficult to notice that whereas the speeches by Jiang and Hu appear to be mainly the work of writing teams, Xi’s speech bears his own rhetorical identifiers and personal touches, in particular the use of direct quotes and classical idioms as well as the choice of poetic and lofty language.

What this may imply is that, taken as a whole, Xi’s speech should leave no doubt that the radical transformation of the Chinese political system from collective leadership to strongman rule and the resultant policy changes are here to stay.  We can further note that Jiang and Hu presented their respective speeches under far more favorable domestic and international circumstances, whereas Xi delivered his speech amid mounting domestic challenges and a fundamentally different external environment—the raging trade war and a possible cold war with the United States.  The firmness of Xi’s tone and the reiteration of his signature policies indicate a low probability of a fundamental policy shift in Beijing despite growing doubts about the sustainability of the current path.

Minxin Pei, editor of China Leadership Monitor, is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. He is also non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Pei has published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Project Syndicate,, Nikkei Asian Review, and many scholarly journals and edited volumes. He is the author of China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (Harvard, 2016); China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Harvard, 2006), and From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Harvard, 1994). Pei formerly was senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1999–2009) and assistant professor of politics at Princeton University (1992–1998). He currently holds the Library of Congress Chair in U.S.-China Relations.​


[1]习近平:在庆祝改革开放40周年大会上的讲话, December 18, 2018, at

[2] Jiang and Hu’s speeches can be accessed at the following links: Jiang Zemin, November 7, 2008, at;  Hu Jintao, December 18, 2008, at

[3] The four cardinal principles established by Deng are “uphold the socialist path, uphold the people’s democratic dictatorship, uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and uphold Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism-Leninism.”

[4] The official translation is “In the exploration process, although experienced serious twists and turns, but the original party theoretical results achieved in socialist revolution and construction and great achievements, and creating socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new historical period has provided valuable experience, theoretical preparation, substance basis.”  Because official translation is often awkward and even inaccurate or incomplete, I use my own translation in the main text where I believe the official translation is wrong or inaccurate,  but I will note  the official translation in the endnote.  This will apply to all the translations in this essay.

[5] 中国共产党新闻网, 习近平“两个不能否定”是实现“中国梦”的科学论断, May 10, 201e, at

[6] Jiang also said: “We deeply miss Comrade Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of our country’s reform, opening, and modernization” (我们深切怀念我国改革开放和现代化建设的总设计师邓小平同志). But this sentence is missing from the official translation.

 Hu said: “We must extend a lofty salute to the party’s third-generation central leadership collective with Comrade Jiang Zemin as the core” (我们要向以江泽民同志为核心的党的第三代中央领导集体致以崇高的敬意). 

[7] The official translation of (党的集中统一领导) is “the Party’s centralized leadership.”

[8] The original Chinese phrases describing the four types of “consciousness” are政治意识、大局意识、核心意识、看齐意识 (consciousness of social responsibility, consciousness of rules, consciousness of dedication, and consciousness of integrity; the four types of self-confidence (中国特色社会主义道路自信、理论自信、制度自信、文化自信) can be translated as self-confidence in the socialist path with Chinese characteristics, self-confidence in the theoretical systemic regime, and self-confidence in the culture.

[9] The official translation of this section is “the future will certainly face the challenges of this kind of risk, even unimaginable encounter stormy sea”

[10] The official translation is :rigid and doctrinaire” for 改旗易帜的邪路 and “the old path of developing a closed country” for 封闭僵化的老路.

[11] The official translation appears to make no sense since it reads “We can change the resolute reform, reform should not be reform determined not to change.”

[12] Hu’s language is: “我们党作出我国仍处于并将长期处于社会主义初级阶段的科学论断,形成了党在社会主义初级阶段的基本路线,这就是:领导和团结全国各族人民,以经济建设为中心,坚持四项基本原则,坚持改革开放,自力更生,艰苦创业,为把我国建设成为富强民主文明和谐的社会主义现代化国家而奋斗.”

[13] It should be noted that in his political report to the 19th CCP Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping appeared to be advancing his concept of a “new era” without completely jettisoning the established party line on “the initial stage.” After describing what the “new era” means, Xi mentions the “initial stage” by noting that “the basic dimension of the Chinese context—that our country is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism—has not changed” (我国仍处于并将长期处于社会主义初级阶段的基本国情没有变).  However, in his speech on December 18, 2018, Xi does not repeat the latter language. 习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告, October 27, 2017, at

[14] “总任务是实现社会主义现代化和中华民族伟大复兴,在全面建成小康社会的基础上,分两步走在本世纪中叶建成富强民主文明和谐美丽的社会主义现代化强国,” ibid.

[15] Chinese GDP, which was less than 12 percent of U.S. GDP in dollar terms in 1998, was approaching 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2008.  More importantly, the global financial crisis of 2008 appeared to offer Beijing a golden opportunity to play a more activist role in international affairs.

[16] Intriguingly, the official translation omits this section about BRI “We will use the BRI as a major foundation of its new foreign policy to create, with others, a new platform of international cooperation” (我们要以共建 “一带一路” 为重点,同各方一道打造国际合作新平台).

Featured Image: China Vice-President Xi Jinping stands during a trade agreement ceremony between the two countries at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland February 19, 2012. (Reuters/David Moir)

Deep Dive: The Second Belt and Road Forum 

By Tuan N. Pham

China just concluded the Second Belt and Road Forum (BaRF) in Beijing 25-27 April. The theme was “Belt and Road Cooperation, Shaping a Brighter Shared Future.” The forum aimed to bring greater and improved cooperation under the ambitious and expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) consisting of 126 countries and 29 organizations that have signed cooperation agreements with China, and generated a total trade volume of $6 trillion to date. 36 foreign leaders attended this year’s forum – up from 29 two years ago. However, notably absent were the heads of state or government from Washington, Tokyo, Seoul, Canberra, New Delhi, London, Paris and Berlin.

In the keynote speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to recalibrate the global infrastructure program and enhance transparency to ensure the financial sustainability of the many BRI projects and respond to the growing chorus of international criticism that they burden and exploit developing countries with onerous debt. The content and manner of the conciliatory speech marks an acute departure from past confident tones to promote and advance the program, and perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that his signature initiative lost ground and momentum in 2018 both abroad and at home, requiring a reset (BRI 2.0). What were the key takeaways, what has changed since the inaugural BaRF in 2017, and more importantly, what’s next for Washington?   

Key Points of Xi’s Speech

 Xi began his speech with a line from a classical Chinese poem – “spring and autumn are lovely seasons in which friends get together to climb up mountains and write poems” and an old Chinese proverb – “plants with strong roots grow well, and efforts with the right focus will ensure success.” Xi then proceeded to assure the audience and the broader international community with familiar BRI themes that were pervasive throughout Beijing-controlled media before, during, and after the forum, “we need to be guided by the principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution, and shared benefits; seek open, green, and clean cooperation; and pursue high standard cooperation to improve people’s lives and promote sustainable development.” Xi next promised structural reforms – similar to those discussed in the ongoing U.S.-China trade talks – “to expand market access for foreign investment in more areas; intensify efforts to enhance international cooperation in intellectual property protection; increase the import of goods and services on an even larger scale; more effectively engage in international macro-economic policy coordination; and work harder to ensure the implementation of opening-up related policies.” 

Xi concluded his remarks with another Chinese adage “honoring a promise carries the weight of gold”while making commitments to “implement multilateral and bilateral economic and trade agreements reached with other countries; strengthen the building of a government based on the rule of law and good faith; put in place a binding mechanism for honoring international agreements; revise extant Chinese laws and regulations to expand the opening-up of the country; overhaul and abolish unjustified regulations, subsidies, and practices that impede fair competition and distort the market; treat all enterprises and business entities equally; and finally foster an enabling business environment based on market forces and governed by law.” All in all, Xi’s 2019 speech was a sharp contrast from his triumphalist speech during the inaugural BaRF two years ago.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde welcomed the shift in Chinese rhetoric, telling the forum after Xi’s speech that the initiative could “benefit from increased transparency, open procurement with competitive bidding, and better risk assessment in project selection” while cautioning that the infrastructure program “should only go where it is needed and where the debt it generates can be sustained.” 

Behind the rhetoric was a laundry list of deliverables to demonstrate commitment to BRI 2.0 and stem the growing skepticism of BRI’s benevolence and benefits. The list includes 283 initiatives proposed or launched by Beijing – bilateral and multilateral agreements signed during or immediately before the BaRF, multilateral cooperation mechanisms under the BRI framework, investment projects and project lists, financing projects, and projects by local authorities and enterprises (supposedly $64 billion worth of deals).  

“Initial” ground assessments painted the BaRF as a “chaotic” diplomatic conference lacking a clear schedule and sufficient content, exacerbated by tight media control thereby making it difficult for the host to project openness (transparency) and falling flat for many of those attending. Television broadcasts of a roundtable discussion on Saturday joined by attending world leaders featured only the opening remarks by Xi and the livestream was cut abruptly before any of BRI countries had a chance to speak. So basically this forum, to me, was a one-day publicity stunt for China…not enough content for a three-day event,” stated a person close to the forum’s organization. A European delegate added that the lack of a clear schedule often left attendees either waiting for hours on end or scrambling to catch up after an event started suddenly.

What Has Changed

China originally envisioned the BRI as a global network of ports, roads, railways, pipelines, and industrial parks, largely built by Chinese corporations. But as the initiative rapidly expanded beyond infrastructure construction to encompass additional underlying political and military objectives as evident by Beijing’s plan to build military bases around the world to protect its growing investments along the various Silk Roads, Western governments began criticizing the BRI for promoting and advancing opaque financial deals that give Beijing undue political leverage by encumbering developing countries with unsustainable financial burdens as well as engendering other risks to the recipient states. These risks can include the erosion of national sovereignty, disengagement from local economic needs, negative environmental impacts, and significant potential for corruption. The complaints steadily grew louder and gained traction over the years, culminating in an increasing number of Asian and African nations suspending, cancelling, or renegotiating BRI projects. Just last month, Beijing cut its price for a multibillion-dollar railway in Malaysia by roughly a third, reviving a project that had been stalled by concerns over debt and corruption.

At the onset of and throughout the BaRF, Beijing de-emphasized big-ticket infrastructure projects in its BRI public diplomacy (public relations) campaign and made more pledges to ensure sustainable (responsible) lending and fight corruption. As part of the recalibration, Chinese government officials negotiated with foreign governments to draw up lists of official BRI projects, promising more BRI transparency, and trying to attract more private-sector money to offset the disproportionate government funding, reduce the domestic fiscal risk, and diminish the perception that the initiative was just another political tool for global dominance. In his keynote speech at this year’s BaRF, Xi underscored the latter by inviting foreign and private-sector partners to contribute more funding and did not make any new pledges of Chinese financing.

What’s Next

China’s promises for a revamped BRI 2.0 will require further monitoring and scrutiny. Hence, Washington and the greater international community should be wary of the ubiquitous “rebranding” by the Chinese state-controlled media and of the vague, ambiguous, and uncertain assurances and deliverables that Beijing may be dangling as an effort to reframe the BRI. China may be presenting a kinder persona to stem the growing skepticism and avoid making longer-term structural BRI reforms, which Beijing does not want to do unless coerced to do so. From the Chinese Communist Party’s perspective, the structural changes will weaken the BRI, undermine China’s global competitive advantage, slow the Party’s deliberate march toward the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation, and keep Beijing from realizing its strategic goal of achieving global influence and ultimately global preeminence. All in all, these promises and assurances are politically expedient but will remain empty without greater transparency and enforcement – the same points made in The Diplomat article “On Looming U.S.-China Trade Deal, Actions Speak Louder Than Words…Talk without the support of action means nothing. Enforcement will be the key to any deal.”

So how should Washington respond? Perhaps the best response is a BRI of its own as proposed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this author, and others. The United States could offer a compelling and alternate economic vision, resourced, and sustained over time. The world needs more infrastructure than any one state can provide, and dissatisfaction and disenchantment with the BRI provides a strategic opportunity for America to work with its allies and partners to deliver high-quality and affordable infrastructure without Chinese conditions. Washington should also start seriously thinking and preparing (contingency planning) for the possibility of a BRI collapse.

At the end of the day, the old Arabian proverb “a promise is a cloud, fulfillment is rain” is apropos. Trust but verify, and plan accordingly for contingencies. 

Tuan Pham is a seasoned China watcher with over two decades of professional experience in the Indo-Pacific and is widely published in international relations and national security affairs. The views expressed are his own.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum at the China National Convention Center (CNCC) in Beijing, Sunday, May 14, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The Deadly Evolution of Abu Sayyaf and the Sea

By Meghan Curran

On the morning of January 27, 2019, two bombs exploded inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, in Jolo on the Sulu Province in the southern Philippines. Tearing a hole through the cathedral during a Sunday service, the bombs claimed 20 lives, injured dozens more, and propelled Islamist extremism in the Philippines back into international headlines. In the aftermath of the blast, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte promised to “pursue to the ends of the Earth the ruthless perpetrators behind [the] dastardly crime,”as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the country’s notoriously violent Islamic separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. While President Duterte may not need to go to the “ends of the Earth” to put an end to the ASG-fueled terror, his government will certainly need to act beyond its own shores. Illicit maritime activities are at the root of ASG funding and operations, and ensuring the group’s defeat will require focused government efforts to improve maritime security in its area of operations.

As External Support Dwindled, ASG Turned to the Sea

ASG has overcome several transition periods throughout its history, and in many ways, its resilience in the face of both internal and external pressures lays in its ability to morph; from Islamist group, to bandit group, and back; and the sea has provided the means for it to do so.

Until fairly recently, ASG relied on substantial funding from global Islamist terror organizations, notably al-Qaeda. Much of this funding was funneled through charitable front organizations, led by Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, a Saudi businessman and Osama Bin Laden’s brother-in-law. As head of the Islamic Organization’s Philippine branch, and later IIRO’s regional director for Southeast Asia, Khalifa also founded several other organizations to support ASG.

However, ASG turned to the sea for funding in the mid-2000s when external support began to wane. Following the discovery of Khalifa’s involvement in the botched Bojinka Plot, which involved the bombing of several airplanes over the Pacific, Philippine authorities blocked his reentry into the country thereby weakening al-Qaeda’s support for the group. After the September 11 attacks, increasing international counterterrorism measures further strained external financial and operational support for the group.

With dwindling support and mounting pressure from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), ASG began capitalizing on the strong maritime tradition of the Sulu archipelago to engage in widespread criminality at sea to fund its operations. In the mid-2000s the group became notorious for seaborne kidnappings for ransom, and orchestrating attacks on numerous diving resorts. Although these activities were mainly profit-motivated, the ransoms were used to purchase weapons and other supplies for the group.

ASG is Pushed Further out to Sea

In 2016, continued AFP pressure combined with renewed international interest in fighting global piracy further restricted ASG’s freedom of movement on the Sulu archipelago, limiting its ability to conduct onshore kidnappings via maritime routes. In response, the group moved its operations further out to sea, and according to One Earth Future’s 2016 State of Piracy Report , conducted 21 successful kidnappings of seafarers while ships were underway. During the first half of 2016, the group mostly targeted smaller vessels, but by October they began attacking larger vessels, presenting a threat to both international and regional traffic. Although these incidents increased dramatically in 2016, in 2017 there was a noticeable lull in similar activities, which some have attributed to militants refocusing their efforts on the siege of Marawi City, and an increasing number of maritime patrols by stakeholders in the region.

However, in September and December 2018, the group conducted two more seaborne kidnappings off Sabah, Malaysia. On March 12, 2019 Malaysian security forces announced they were on full alert following intelligence reports that ASG militants were once again active in the waters off Sabah, seeking new hostages to fund their campaign. The report stated that ASG had been using contacts on the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, to identify high value targets.

Sea Routes Key to ASGs Next Wave of Operations

Besides using the sea to carry out kidnappings for ransom, ASG is also currently utilizing the maritime space in a manner more closely related to the recent headline-grabbing attack in Jolo.

The group is using sea routes to move foreign fighters into the Philippines, allowing it to utilize foreign suicide operatives, while also maintaining a local base. The January 2019 cathedral attack was carried out by suicide bombers from Indonesia, and experts estimate that there could be up to 100 additional foreign fighters, mostly from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East, currently operating in the Philippines. During the five-month siege of Marawi City on the island of Mindanao, the AFP fought an enemy bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters whose presence emboldened local pro-Islamic State groups, playing a key role in bridging divides between the group’s many factions. In the aftermath of the siege, intelligence failures on the part of both the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) pointed to militants from neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia navigating the Sulu and Celebes Seas to join Abu Sayyaf’s fight in the southern Philippines.

The Sea is the Key

As the Islamic State continues to lose territory in the Middle East, foreign fighters are viewing the Philippines as an increasingly attractive battlefield. The battle for Marawi City prompted a rise in ISIS propaganda focused on Southeast Asia, with one video explicitly urging supporters to travel to the Philippines. While several foreign fighters have been detained, arrested, and deported after flying into Mindanao, others have been using a backdoor, transiting routes in the Sulu and Celebes Seas that involve island hopping along the region’s numerous archipelagic chains.

On October 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte claimed victory against terrorists in Mindanao, following the liberation of Marawi City. With 1,200 dead, a city in ruins, and martial law declared, many wondered if ASG was truly defeated. But once again the group has illustrated its ability to adapt. The influx of foreign fighters in the Philippines has changed the dynamics of Islamist terrorism in the region. According to analysts, Filipino terrorist groups have traditionally avoided suicide bombings, preferring “sustained combat to cowardly tactics.” But in July 2018, the first ever suicide bombing by militants in the Philippines was carried out in Basilian province by a Moroccan fighter, with assistance from both Abu Sayyaf and other foreign fighters from Malaysia. Shortly thereafter, a cathedral bombing in Jolo rattled the Philippines once again.

As the AFP continues to engage ASG in the forested islands of the southern Philippines, it is imperative that the Duterte administration continues to invest in regional transnational maritime domain awareness mechanisms. This is particularly crucial in the tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which has a long legacy of illicit maritime activity, porous borders, and cross-national family bonds that make undocumented entry and exit into countries in the region common.

The Sulu and Celebes Seas. (Freeworldmaps)

While some regional coordination efforts to address illicit maritime activity already exist, the Philippines must build on recent successes and regional initiatives. For example, the Trilateral Cooperative Agreement (TCA) formalized in 2016 resulted in joint maritime and air patrols, as well as coordination between maritime command centers in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. And while the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) indicates that the TCA has resulted in a decrease in transnational crime in the tri-border area, issues regarding trust across agencies and governments, unclear agency mandates, and duplication of efforts have limited the impact of such organizations. Without sufficient attention to these issues, the defeat of the region’s most persistent violent groups will continue to be out of reach. 

Meghan Curran is a researcher with Stable Seas, an international NGO focused on maritime security issues. This article advances themes published in a new report titled Stable Seas: Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Featured Image: Philippine soldiers stand in formation during a send-off ceremony at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila October 27, 2010. (REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo)