As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!



Image source: Nadav Kander for TIME

On January 20, the Obama Era of American history will come to a close. Like many of his predecessors, he leaves behind a contentious legacy that is sure to occupy the attentions of historians and biographers for decades to come. His supporters make him seem like a paragon of virtue and liberal ideals, while his opponents portray him as a socialist demagogue determined to destroy America. Now that his administration is passing into history, it seems fair and obvious that neither description really fits. So what kind of leader was he?

While some of Obama’s most contentious and consequential policies, like his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), are beyond the scope of this blog, his foreign policy was important, and it’s worth taking a look back at what he managed to accomplish — and whether his policy will have an enduring impact.

Obama’s foreign policy was shaped above all by the legacy of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush started 2 wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and created an enduring image of America as an oppressive bully, especially in the Muslim world. Obama — capitalizing on a growing war-weariness among the American public, even among Republicans — sought to put an end to this and project an image of a nicer, gentler, more reasonable America. Always a critic of the Iraq War, which had been a personal project of Bush and his oil industry buddies anyway, he wasted little time in pulling American troops out, which was finished in 2011. He made a concerted effort to reassure ordinary Muslims that America wasn’t Islamophobic and thuggish, for instance by giving a speech with these themes at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University in 2009. He made some efforts to distance America from Israel’s right-wing policies like building settlements in the West Bank and launching repeated wars against the Gaza Strip.

While Obama successfully differentiated himself from Bush (he is beloved in Europe and even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), it’s hard to discern how pacifist America has really become. He never really ended the war in Afghanistan; after an ineffectual “surge” (sudden increase in troops) in 2009, he pulled troop numbers down to 10,000, which remain in Afghanistan in an advisory role to support the fragile government there. It remains unstable, violent and messy.

America was caught off-guard by the turbulence of the Arab Spring of 2011, and Obama had to play a delicate balancing act, pressuring Arab dictators to step down or at least heed the protesters’ demands without really withdrawing support or taking the protesters’ side. As a result, he alienated both sides. When Egypt lapsed back into dictatorship in 2013, he reaffirmed America’s old support for the Egyptian military. He supported Saudi Arabia’s war against a Shi’ite uprising in Yemen. He went to war in the air over Libya to ensure a rebel victory there.

Looming over all of this in Obama’s foreign policy legacy is the disastrous war in Syria, born out of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of the protests there. Amidst international clamor for the US to get involved there, he dithered. The one time he did threaten to attack Syria was in retaliation for a poison gas attack in Damascus in 2013, and that ended peacefully with the removal and destruction of Syria’s sarin gas stockpile. Instead, America’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State, a jihadist rebel group in east Syria and northern Iraq. Ever since its dramatic expansion and declaration of a caliphate (transnational Islamic empire) in 2014, America has been bombing it relentlessly in concert with other concerned Western and regional countries. Given repeated Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and America, it’s hard to say that the policy is succeeding so far.

In other words, Obama has had to reconcile his desire for a more dovish foreign policy with the demands of national security. Mindful of domestic concerns about terrorism, he’s fought jihadists as hard as Bush did, but with an emphasis on drone strikes and commando operations to take them out. The former is how he killed Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American propagandist for suicide terrorism living in Yemen; the latter is how Usama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the devastating terrorist attack of 2001, met his fate. He is as hard-nosed and ruthless as Bush when it comes to killing terrorists, but with a marked preference for methods other than full-on war and the messy and difficult state-building that comes with it. Whether his strategy actually makes America safer remains to be seen; it seems hard to imagine a real reduction in terrorism without a serious change in Muslim attitudes, since many of them have marked America and the West in general as the enemy and will persist in fighting it until something changes their minds.

The other aspect of Obama’s nicer foreign policy was a willingness to accommodate rogue and unfriendly regimes. Here he has had more obvious success. First came Myanmar, an isolated and repressive dictatorship long subject to international sanctions and criticism. In response to increasing Chinese encroachment, it offered to open up its political system in the hopes that America would then lift its sanctions and let it open up its economic system. It did, and Obama even visited Myanmar to celebrate its new international posture in 2012 and 2014. Several ongoing conflicts notwithstanding, Myanmar now seems headed on a more successful and promising path. Then came Iran, a vital player in West Asian politics isolated by its strident anti-Americanism, threats against Israel and nuclear program. Although Obama’s initial overtures toward the Iranian regime were rebuffed, a punishing round of international sanctions brought it to the negotiating table after a more accommodating president was elected in 2013. The resulting deal on its nuclear program forced Iran to make real concessions at relatively little cost to the US. Finally, there was Cuba, a Communist country embargoed by America for decades. America’s rigid isolation of it seemed outdated and ineffective long before Obama came to power, and he seized upon opening diplomatic relations with it as an easy way to score a political victory and appease annoyed Latinos. Tourism has picked up and momentum is building for increasing commercial and personal ties with the island.

But in all of these cases, it’s unclear if the progress America has made will be sustained after Obama leaves office. His replacement, Donald Trump, has a much more sour view of the world, and Republicans in general tend to view good relations with sketchy regimes as a sign of weakness and/or appeasement. Myanmar might be playing the outside world for quick and easy money, and the much-loathed military still has effective veto power. Iran still supports Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and remains deeply skeptical of American intentions. Cuba remains under an embargo with an anti-American Communist dictator. There are a few anti-American countries Obama wasn’t able to woo, like Venezuela and North Korea; Trump will have to deal with them.

Another one is Russia. Although Russia wasn’t quite an enemy state or rogue regime, relations with America had suffered in the later years of the Bush presidency. Obama hoped to “reset” relations and be more cooperative. It didn’t work: Russia got freaked out by the unrest of the Arab Spring and American support for anti-government protests in Russia in 2011-12, seeing America’s relations with dictatorships as a way for it to undermine them. In 2014 Russia stopped the pretense that it is a “normal” country and annexed Crimea in retaliation for a popular uprising in Ukraine. Since then it has upped the ante with an insurgency in east Ukraine, anti-Western propaganda, ominous military exercises, bellicose rhetoric and electoral shenanigans in the West (including America). Obama has responded with international sanctions and increased (financial) support for Ukraine. While Republicans at first thundered that these strategies were way too soft, they’ve since flipped (thanks to Trump) and complain that Obama is unfairly and ineffectually isolating Russia. Trump seems to want to be friends with Russia, or at least reach some sort of accord, so Obama’s relations with Russia may go down in history as his most ineffective and inconsequential foreign initiative.

Another 1 of Obama’s goals was to “pivot to Asia.” With fond memories of a childhood spent in Indonesia, he saw East Asia as a golden opportunity for spreading American influence, business and cultural norms in a region intimidated by the rise of China and with rapidly fading memories of the brutish America that ruined Vietnam. Despite the unending stream of crises coming out of West Asia, he saw East Asia as the true fulcrum of global power in the 2000s. He deployed American troops to the Philippines and Australia, cozied up to Vietnam and India, hosted leaders from ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), sent naval patrols through the South China Sea, and quietly encouraged better relations between the crucial allies of Japan and South Korea.

The linchpin of this pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation grouping of Asian, Oceanian, North and Latin American countries eager for free trade, transparent business practices, and standardization of goods and services. After years of expecting the agreement to be just around the corner, especially after the normally globalist Republicans took both houses of Congress in 2014, the initiative faced a stunning defeat when Trump got elected, since he hates globalization. Despite continued interest in the deal from Japan (the other dominant partner), the future of the partnership without America looks uncertain. This defeat, combined with China’s renewed diplomatic, economic, and military overtures in East Asia, makes the importance of the pivot dubious. Asians always doubted how committed America was to their region, and betting too much on American influence seemed risky given that it’s not an Asian country. With Trump’s election, the Philippines’ new president caustically spurning America, and a chill in Thai-American relations after a coup there in 2014, it’s more common now to read dismissive evaluations of the pivot.

With ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bloody mess in Syria, aggressive counter-terrorism operations, a newly hostile Russia, and a China apparently determined to gradually shove America out of East Asia, it might seem that Obama’s foreign policy record is bleak. There is certainly plenty of ammo for his critics to harp on and the rosy evaluations of his fans seem far-fetched or out of touch with reality. But Obama’s greatest success was in projecting a certain image of America, of reminding the world that the Texan “cowboy” caricature embodied by Bush is only 1 side of America’s identity. For all the cynical politicians who saw him as a naive weakling ripe for manipulation, there were an equal or greater number who appreciated his diplomatic, reasonable, nuanced approach and easygoing style. His interest in issues like regulating carbon emissions to limit the effects of climate change or promoting a bigger electricity grid in Africa won him many admirers, as did his willingness to engage with “ordinary” people in townhall events in India, China and Vietnam. His warm relations with other world leaders made it much easier to throw together international efforts like the sanctions against Iran and Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the coalitions against Libya and the Islamic State.

Obama is often described as a “cool” president, both because he’s a pretty chill guy who relates well to ordinary people and because he takes a levelheaded, pragmatic approach to policy. He embraced Bill Clinton’s worldview — an America ready to use military force when (it feels that it’s) needed but more inclined toward soft power, like diplomacy, commercial pressure and foreign aid. He also took cues from Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush (“First Bush”), who used America’s formidable military power but opted for restraint and deft diplomacy in more delicate situations. And if I may indulge in a personal opinion here, I believe that his background — a mixed-race man with a father of a different nationality and a childhood spent partially overseas — has shaped his worldview somewhat. Traditional American foreign policy credos like “America must be the world’s policeman, intervening in trouble spots to uphold international law & order” or “America is a liberal bastion of the best political, economic, and ideological systems ever invented and we should spread them wherever we can” are favored by the white, Protestant “Eastern Establishment” that has long dominated American politics and especially foreign policy. Obama is probably better able to see the world and its issues from a different perspective — that of the browner parts of the globe, who regard America with at least a little apprehension given its overwhelming power and influence.

Obama’s foreign policy was only a partial success. Too often people went easy on him for just Not Being Bush instead of what he actually did. In cases like Russia and Syria (which combined to horrifying effect near the end of his 2nd term), he didn’t always seem to know what to do. The world may now face yet another side of the American identity as Trump revises American foreign policy along his own lines. But Obama’s foreign policy may yet prove to be as inspirational to those who care about this stuff as his domestic policy was to young, liberal Americans. It suggests an America that’s not overbearing, loud, or obnoxious, that knows how to rub elbows and build careful strategic relationships and project a positive image to the world, yet also willing to strike hard and fast when world order or its own security is at threat. Most likely, more people will regret Obama’s departure than cheer it.



Image source: AP

Pakistan lies at the fault line between “West Asia” (the Turkish, Arab and Persian-dominated areas in the southwestern part of the continent) and “South Asia” (the Indian subcontinent, which begins roughly at the Indus Valley which forms Pakistan’s heart). It’s an unstable, unpredictable country, one which has given policymakers, diplomats and businessmen migraines for decades at least (if not its entire existence). Newsweek magazine even called Pakistan “the most dangerous country” in the world a decade ago, and the evaluation has caught on. While it’s a little hard to stay perpetually terrified of a country for that long, the sad fact is not much has changed.

So what’s the problem? Pakistan isn’t a war zone or a failed state or a criminal hotbed. What makes it so dangerous?

Pakistan was born out of a violent partition of the old colonial Indian Empire in 1947. It originally included what is now Bangladesh because both areas are mostly Muslim (almost all Muslim now). It had numerous defects right from the get-go: a big refugee population, multiple languages, a divide between the dry, dusty mountainous and desert regions to the west and the fertile river valley in the east, a lack of a real political precedent within its borders, hostile and dangerous neighbors, and the usual Third World problems (poverty, illiteracy, superstition, overcrowding, etc.). And that’s not even counting the huge split (the size of India!) with its eastern section.

Pakistan did have a substantial cohort of British-trained and educated professionals to make up a decent governing and business class, something that it still benefits from today. It had a visionary founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But these benefits only went so far; Jinnah died within a year of independence and his prime minister was assassinated. Pakistan’s leaders proved to be feckless, squabbling, incompetent and corrupt. Its internal divisions, especially between its western and eastern wings, grew wider and wider.

About the only institution in Pakistan that was widely respected was the army (and even then, not so much in the eastern wing), which was also trained along the British model but much more tightly disciplined than the government. It chafed under civilian control, so in 1958, after a period of 4 prime ministers in 2 years, the military took power, following the lead of other chaotic, artificial postcolonial states. The Pakistani military would go on to launch coups again in 1977 and 1999, and military dictatorship has come to characterize Pakistan. Even when the military isn’t in charge, it still wields enormous power from behind the scenes. Elected officials are too scared to run afoul of it, given what happened to the Bhutto political family (father Zulfikar was hanged, daugher Benazir was assassinated).

Tight military control was justified in part by Pakistan’s hostile international environment. To its southeast looms India, a mortal enemy that Pakistan has always regarded with fear and misgivings. To its north is Afghanistan, a turbulent, poor and unpredictable country. Beyond Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, a Communist superpower. Fearing a squeeze from both sides by the infidel menace, Pakistan made 2 strategic alliances to ensure its security: America and China. America was interested in containing the Soviet Union and also distrusted India. Sino-Indian relations went sour after a 1962 war, and relations with the Soviet Union weren’t too great either. China may also be Communist and infidel, but it was more distant than the USSR and less expansionist.

Pakistan may have a big, powerful army, but it pales in comparison to the Soviet Union’s or India’s. (This was demonstrated in a series of wars with India, none of which Pakistan won, some of which it definitely lost.) To compensate, Pakistan has relied on espionage; its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), became one of the world’s most active, weakening Pakistan’s enemies with propaganda and boosting its clients with government funds. It played a crucial role in the long war in Afghanistan by channeling monetary and military aid to the mujahidin fighting the Soviet Union there in the 1980s. In the ’90s (but also earlier), it did the same to insurgents in Kashmir, a territory split between Pakistan and India that Pakistan has always claimed and that has been a perpetual thorn in India’s armor.

Just to shake things up a little, Pakistan has not been immune to the current of Islamic radicalism coursing through Muslim countries. It had been founded as a secular country with Islam interpreted more as a cultural unifying force. But the bloody ethnic cleansing that accompanied Partition purged it of most minorities, and ordinary Pakistanis are mostly devout. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’80s, believed that Islam needed to be encouraged more to give the country a stronger unifying force and fighting spirit. He built Muslim schools (madrassas) across the country and encouraged the development of Muslim political parties and Quranic education. Saudi Arabia, the Muslim world’s biggest and most pious spender, became a patron, with Saudi preachers imported to spread its puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. The Afghan fighters both countries favored — first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then the Taliban — were Islamist (which means that they want Islam to play a role in national politics).

There are several reasons for this. Many Pakistani officers, generals, politicians and spies are personally pious and see Islam as the only true bond across cultural and ethnic lines (especially in the Afghan war’s original context as an anti-Communist jihad). Pakistan explained to its American sponsors that jihadists fight harder and with more conviction (although Hekmatyar challenged this interpretation with his deadlocked struggle to take Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in the early ’90s). From a strategic point of view, Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul to keep Afghanistan’s unruly and problematic warlords in line and to stem the flow of opium out of that country. Its clients have been Pashtun, an ethnic group along the Pakistani border. They have assumed they will be more pliable and easier to work with — and more likely to rein in the Pashtuns within Pakistan, who also tend to be unruly.

As anyone who’s been paying attention to world affairs for the last few decades can tell you, this strategy has created problems. The Taliban proved to be much more zealous and puritanical than Pakistan was comfortable with, banning music, soccer, toothpaste, TVs, and Western clothing, among various other things deemed non-Islamic. It hosted terrorists in Afghanistan who operated on an international scale. When they attacked America in 2001, it brought a 2nd superpower crashing into Afghanistan, with Pakistan roped in as a base for the American invasion. Pakistanis now found themselves fighting against the very government they had installed.

The Taliban have since lost power, as has Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’00s. America, after a brief surge in 2009-11, has withdrawn from Afghanistan, preferring to use drones to nail unfriendly mujahidin from the sky.

But less has changed than meets the eye. The military, as ever before, wields enormous power within Pakistan, and despite what its civilian government says, it is still sponsoring the Taliban, guided by the same strategic assumptions as before. Russia (although influential once more) is no longer the key force within Afghanistan that it once was, but India has renewed good relations with Afghanistan. This only exacerbates Pakistan’s fear of encirclement and keeps its supply lines to Islamists and terrorists flowing.

The results are plain to see. In 2008, terrorists supported by ISI attacked a major hotel in Mumbai, India’s biggest city, and went on a bloody rampage in the city. In 2011, it was revealed that Usama bin Ladin, the mastermind behind 9/11, had been living in Abbottabad, Pakistan (home of Pakistan’s military academy) for 5 years. In 2015, it was revealed that Mullah Umar, the Taliban’s deposed leader, had died — in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. In all cases, Pakistan vehemently denied that it was involved in any way, despite the substantial evidence saying otherwise.

As a result, Pakistan’s relations with America are in decline. Evidence of covert Pakistani support for the Taliban was obvious from the beginning of America’s invasion in 2001 (particularly since America’s intelligence agency, the CIA, had cooperated with ISI on covert support in the ’80s). Repeated American requests to stop have been ignored. Instead, Pakistan has grown testier and testier with the US, since Pakistani civilians occasionally die in American drone strikes. Conspiracy theories and exaggerated atrocity stories circulate freely within Pakistan, leading to an 11% approval rating for America. Americans weren’t a big fan of the bin Ladin thing, either. The result is that America is showing more interest in a cooperative relationship with India. Relations with China remain strong, and may even be improving thanks to China’s famed engineering and development capacity. On the other hand, China is worried about Islamic militancy too, since it has a Muslim population in its west and its workers in Pakistan have to worry about getting shot or captured.

While the turmoil in Afghanistan remains a distant problem for most Pakistanis, who live in the Indus Valley, it is hitting closer and closer to home. Peshawar, a major Pashtun city and a focal point for fighters slipping in and out of Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass, is pretty close to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A home-grown Taliban offshoot, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, along with various other terrorist groups inspired by militant religious rhetoric, attacks targets inside Pakistan — a public school in Peshawar, Christians celebrating Easter in a park in Lahore, a police academy in Quetta. Muslim sects like Shi’ites and Ahmadis are routinely attacked and persecuted. A climate of fear and intolerance is oppressing Pakistan’s urban centers, and anyone known to be spreading un-Islamic ideas or practices is in danger of assassination.

The final unpredictable element in Pakistan is its nuclear arsenal. Rattled by India’s nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan has secretly been developing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as deterrence. Although the world freaked out during the Kargil War with India in 1999, Pakistan has not used them yet (and hasn’t fought an open war with India since, even though the insurgency in Kashmir boils on). But Pakistan is guilty of passing nuclear technology on to other interested countries like Iran and North Korea. With Peshawar such a short distance from Islamabad, the prospect of Taliban fighters or their brethren getting their hands on nukes is definitely a prospect that makes diplomats break out into sweat.

This, then, is the dilemma of present-day Pakistan. It has an elected and generally respected civilian government, but the military runs the show and subverts the government’s will when it feels the national interest is at stake. It relies on passionately Muslim mujahedin to keep Afghanistan weak and divided, even if this means an increasing threat of an Islamic insurgency within itself. It condemns America’s drone-centered policy but basically relies on it to deal with insurgents it’s too scared of taking on itself. It relies on its huge military, nuclear stockpile, and network of informants, insurgents and terrorists to keep India distracted and reactive, thereby increasing its own security, even though it provokes continued mistrust and hostility from India.

Pakistan still has several strengths. It has one of the world’s biggest populations, a substantial professional class, some manufacturing, and a military disciplined and unified enough to hold the country together. It is not as extremely Islamic as Afghanistan used to be and Iran and Saudi Arabia still are. It cooperates with America on counter-terrorism (when it suits its own interests) and occasionally shows interest in peace talks with India. But its growing network of zealously Islamic political groups, ethnic divisions, and ongoing lack of economic development continue to hold it back and inspire concern. Calling Pakistan the “world’s most dangerous country” might be up for debate, but it’s certainly one that has frustrated and confused outsiders for a long time.