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This week our top story explores new upgrades to the J-20 – and what that might mean for the future of China’s fighter fleet. We also have an interview with Hassan Abbas, a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Strategic Studies Center, on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: who they are, what they want, and how they govern.
The Diplomat Brief
August 1,
Welcome to the latest issue of Diplomat Brief. This week our top story explores new upgrades to the J-20 – and what that might mean for the future of China’s fighter fleet. We also have an interview with Hassan Abbas, a professor at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Strategic Studies Center, on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: who they are, what they want, and how they govern.
Story of the week
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China’s J-20 Gets Another Upgrade

What Happened: On June 29, a new J-20 prototype with the serial number 2052 made its first flight at Chengdu Aircraft Corporation in China. The test flight, images of which leaked online, marked several milestones. Most notably, it’s the first time China’s domestically developed WS-15 engine has powered the J-20. In addition, the airframe in question is a major new variant of the J-20, with external changes, upgrades, and new capabilities apart from the new engine. Combining the test flight with new estimates of the total size of China’s J-20 fleet, it’s a good time to re-evaluate the future of China’s fighter jet programs.

Our Focus: The new variant, dubbed the J-20A, has “upgrades to the aircraft’s sensors, avionics, materials, and enhanced growth potential,” writes Rick Joe, a prominent analyst of China’s military technology. However, for long-time watchers of China’s military the most important development is the inclusion of WS-15 engines on the J-20A. The WS-15 has been under active development since 2006 (and in the pipeline since the 1990s), but repeated setbacks forced China to launch the J-20 without it. A full 12 years after the J-20 first flew, China is apparently finally ready to equip the WS-15 on its fighters. That’s a major breakthrough for China’s aerospace engine industry, long a weak point in its defense sector.

What Comes Next: Joe doesn’t expect a J-20 equipped with the WS-15 engine to be in service before 2025. But when the J-20A does make its full debut, some analysts argue it should be considered a “5.5 generation” fighter – a bridge between the current fifth generation and the still-hypothetical sixth generation. “The J-20 itself will also eventually be succeeded,” Joe notes, but we can expect that “some projected sixth-generation adjacent capabilities (such as enhanced UCAV control) are likely to be integrated and upgraded into existing J-20 variants.”

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Behind the News


Hassan Abbas

Hassan Abbas, author of “The Return of the Taliban: Afghanistan after the Americans Left,” on schisms within the Taliban: “I have heard from many Taliban leaders in my personal engagements that they actually do want girls to go to high school and college, but Mullah Haibutullah in Kandahar, under the influence of radical elements around him, has been creating hurdles… Kandahar is dogmatic and trying to enforce its writ, but the Afghanistan of 2023 is different from the Afghanistan of the ‘90s.”

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This Week in Asia

Northeast Asia

China’s Mixed Signals on the Private Sector

In late July, following yet another month of disappointing economic performance, the CCP Politburo issued a statement pledging to offer more support for the private sector. Analysts, investors, and businesspeople alike were skeptical – Beijing has made similar statements before, and Xi Jinping’s government has been pursuing increased party control over private companies. Case in point: China is moving to hold private firms and their employees accountable under anti-corruption legislation that currently applies only to SOEs.

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South Asia

Opposition Rallies Gather Crowds in Bangladesh

A political storm is brewing in Bangladesh ahead of the January 2024 elections. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been organizing mass rallies throughout the country, highlighting popular discontent with the Awami League government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Hasina has ruled continuously since 2009 – which the BNP says is due to rigged elections in 2014 and 2018. Now the BNP is demanding that Hasina resign, with a caretaker government installed to oversee the polls. Meanwhile the Awami League is cracking down on the protests, saying they are fomenting violence.

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Southeast Asia

Myanmar Junta Extends State of Emergency – Again

Myanmar’s military junta this week extended its state of emergency by a further six months – the fourth such extension since the February 2021 coup – further delaying stage-managed elections that it had vowed to hold by the end of the year. The National Defense and Security Council said the decision was due to “the destructive actions” of the armed resistance opposing its rule, an admission that two-and-a-half years after seizing power, it does not have effective control over much of the country. The extension was followed by an announcement of a partial pardon for ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently transferred out of solitary confinement. Taken together, these announcements reflect an attempt by the military to relieve international pressure and divide Myanmar’s resistance.

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Central Asia

What a Debate About Names Says About Kyrgyzstan

Since the Soviet era, it has been traditional for children in Kyrgyzstan to be given both a Russian-style last name as well as a patronymic, a second name derived from their father – think Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. A Kyrgyz woman’s quest to give her children her name, rather than their fathers’, has sparked both sharp debate and a power grab in Kyrgyzstan. In recent years, some in Kyrgyzstan have turned to an older local naming tradition, which has its own way of preserving the patriarchy in the names of children.

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Visualizing APAC

A resident looks out over an area inundated by flood waters in the Miaofengshan region on the outskirts of Beijing, August 1, 2023.

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Word of the Week


খেলা হবে

Khela hobe, a Bengali political slogan meaning “the game is on.” First used by an Awami League candidate, it is now being used by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to rally the opposition.

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Central Asia Comes Out of the Russian Shadow

The Diplomat Magazine | August 2023

Central Asia Comes Out of the Russian Shadow

This month, our cover story details the new wave of interest in reclaiming local identity – and shedding the legacies of Russian and Soviet colonialism – in Central Asia. We also explore “colonial nostalgia” in Hong Kong, uncover the imperialist roots of today’s South China Sea disputes, and trace how South Asia’s struggles with authoritarianism reflect a dark inheritance from the British Raj. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

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Diplomat Risk Intelligence

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Published by Diplomat Risk Intelligence, Research Notes* offer actionable insight to strategic decision-makers seeking to understand political risk and economic trends in Asia.

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