Leaders, Soldiers, Hackers and Spies

Commentary | December 19, 2013

With the New Year approaching, several EWI staff and fellows offered their lists of what they believed were the most significant events of 2013.

Piin-Fen Kok, Director, China, East Asia and United States Program

Xi’s Country

The leadership transition is completed with the state leadership reshuffle and Xi Jinping’s assumption of the presidency. Xi moves decisively to consolidate power and control. The 18th CPC central committee holds its third plenum and announces the most comprehensive set of economic, political and social reforms since 1978.

These various developments will have ramifications for China’s domestic and foreign policies in the coming years, as Xi is expected to remain in power until 2022. 

America’s Image Takes a Beating

The U.S. government shuts down for the first time in decades over a debt/deficit impasse, prompting calls from China for “a de-Americanized world.” Edward Snowden's revelations affect U.S. relations with its allies and transform the nature of international political discourse and diplomacy on cyber hacking, especially with China.

The moral high ground of the world’s superpower has been eroded—it’s shown to the world that it cannot keep its own house in order, and it now needs a new approach to lecturing others about cyber intrusions.

Whatever Happened to the Axis of Evil...?

A new deal is reached with Iran, part of a breakthrough in relations with the United States. Meanwhile, North Korea conducts another nuclear test, and Kim Jong-Un executes his uncle.

The world will watch with bated breath to see how these developments will affect regional and nuclear security—for different reasons.

Maritime Security Tensions in East Asia

China-Japan relations sink to a new low. Warplanes circle the skies in China’s ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). U.S. and Chinese warships narrowly avoid a collision in the South China Sea.

The risk of military conflict, whether inadvertent or deliberate, is real, and the U.S. rebalancing strategy is tested, as is China’s claim of peaceful intentions. This is also raises the question whether Japan will finally be compelled to acknowledge a dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Deal

The deal stemmed a dreadful scenario of chemical war within Syria and spotlighted Russian diplomacy. The civil war, though, within the country hasn’t stopped.


Greg Austin, Professorial Fellow

U.S. Demand on China to Stop Cyber Espionage

In February, the United States laid down an unusual public demand on China to curtail its cyber espionage against American targets.  Within a short time, it also imposed retaliatory measures on associated Chinese corporations by barring their products from government procurement contracts for selected federal departments. This came after President Obama criticized cyber “enemies,” which was a thinly veiled broadside at China. The adversarial positioning by the United States is understandable at one level, but it marked yet one more serious step downwards in the bilateral relationship arising from unchecked militarization of cyberspace.    

Snowden Revelations   

While the information itself was no surprise to professional diplomats, the Edward Snowden leaks represented the most serious U.S. intelligence breach in several decades and dealt a serious blow to its credibility, not least its position on a free and open Internet. Allied intelligence agencies, especially in the United Kingdom, were outraged by what they saw as American incompetence in compromising some of their most sensitive national secrets, some 52,000 top secret documents. The world suddenly felt like “We are all American targets now.” United States preeminence in cyber espionage was confirmed, if there was ever any doubt. The damage will take years to repair. 

Syrian Chemical Weapons Attack and Subsequent Diplomacy 

The events in Syria are momentous. First, the Assad regime was directly implicated in what was a war crime, but no major state has yet taken any significant steps against it as a result. Second, Russia knocked normally nimble-footed Western diplomats off their stride by quickly brokering a chemical disarmament deal with the Syrians. Third, the diplomacy coincided with a clear shift in Western attitudes to the opposition in Syria as concerns rose about the influence of the extremist militias. 

Iran Agreement with 5+1 on Nuclear Issues

After more than ten years of threats by the United States and Israel that a military attack on Iran might be needed to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, diplomacy appears to have succeeded in forging a preliminary breakthrough. The outcome resulted from a historic shift by the United States and its negotiating partners from a policy of “mostly sticks, some carrots” to one of “let’s just talk in good faith about the result we both need.”

Naval Arms Race Emerges between Japan and China 

Japan’s long term defense plan and the associated naval procurement decisions set that country on a course for expansion of its navy, calibrated against Chinese naval forces. The decisions mark the culmination of two decades of rising concern in Japan about China’s defense modernization, combined with the return to power in December 2102 of an unapologetically assertive Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Japan’s decisions have been influenced by China’s escalation of rhetoric and activities around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, but they do not depend on that. 


Kevin Ching, Davis Fellow

Snowden NSA Leaks 

The scale and scope of activities by intelligence agencies across the globe was a staggering revelation, the full impact of which is yet to be seen. It has propelled a public debate on the balance between privacy and safety to the fore, and also has significant repercussions for U.S. tech companies.

China’s Growing Assertiveness

Territorial disputes continue to flare in the South and East China Seas, as China’s neighbors argue that such aggression belies Beijing’s claims of a peaceful rise. The situation has come to a head with Beijing’s surprising declaration of an ADIZ that covers a string of islands hotly contested by Japan and China.

Shale Gas Revolution

Technological advances have allowed the U.S. to exploit its shale gas reserves, making it the world’s largest producer of natural gas. This has had a massive effect on the U.S. energy market, with reverberating economic and geopolitical implications in Asia, the Middle East and the rest of the world.


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