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South China sea security dilemma

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World looked forwardpassionately to achieve a long awaited break from the conflicts brewing up in Middle East (ME) as well as in Central Asia. A glimmer of hope kindled after withdrawal of US forces from Iraq,

claiming to have achieved its objectives, and draw down from Afghanistan, already in full swing where NATO operates in unison for over a decade. Strange enough, metaphorically the winding down war intensity appears to have been negatively manipulated by Ares, the god of violence, to hype quietly the hostilities or the threat of them in a new theatre, called South China Sea (SCS). Rhetoric rumbles wide and far that the storm is building up.

Perception Variants

Some scholars appear determined to prove that talk of impending conflict in Asia-Pacific region amounts to expecting tempest in a tea-cup. Despite hostile gestures, other analysts tend to connect huge economic stakes and finding them significant, they rule out conflict. Sterling (2012) thinks, ‘According to a Japanese business group, 30,000 firms operate in China. Japan has investments there of $85 billion….For their part, the Japanese don’t want to jeopardise access to a market of 1.3 billion people.’ The optimism soon vanishes, however, once some warships and submarines pop up from the ‘tea-cup’ and are observed conspicuously indulging in hostile manoeuvres. Ungar (2012) remarked about the ensuing tension, ‘The Philippines and Vietnam have already protested the Chinese action, but the Chinese Global Times responded that China will not back down on sovereignty issues….’

Ongoing territorial tiff is likely to suck in militarily not only SCS peripheral countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand and Malaysia but also some distant powers like India, Japan, and Australia. US gets soon bracketed by implications because of security-guarantee obligations, it owes to Japan and Philippines, besides being recognised as a lead power to keep the Asian allies’ mercury down. Even Australia and Canada, its traditional allies are cautious to encourage or pursue a posture that would stoke diplomatic tension.  Manicom (2012) comments, ‘Ottawa has made no secret of its preference to focus this engagement (with China) on economic issues as part of a strategy to diversify away from US markets.’ Perceiving these comments within the alliance, apparent ambivalence about SCS paradox by the parties ought to be seen as profuse pragmatism.

Conflict Feasibility and Limitation

Under the environments of globalised politics, the conflicts have the tragic character to expand, particularly when more than one direct party in the arena happen to be the powerful titans with heavy stakes. The chemistry of recent conflicts testifies at least two hypotheses.

First, given the prowess, it has become far more feasible to initiate a conflict by the powers, which enjoy global military reach, albeit at an exorbitant cost in men and material. In classical sense, no other power has demonstrated such versatility except NATO and recently France in Mali to sustain trans-continental operations of war. Chinese strategic reach within the sphere of South and ECS is a reality now that littoral states would find hard to rebuff. Rudd (2012) is of the view, ‘Chinese strategic capabilities, the force structure of its military together with its emerging doctrine are aimed at supporting China’s core interests….’

Second, conflicts are becoming increasingly difficult to wrap up because of the ability of lesser powers to outsource a conflict with minimal costs but stupendous gains to keep the adversaries embroiled in a conflict, no matter how potent militarily they may be. What also lacks in the entire appreciation of the SCS crumbling security paradigm is that Chinese views and diplomacy, even if not apparently palatable, are finding scant elaboration. There is a contextual need to prefer exploratory research over descriptive one. The desirability cannot be over-emphasised even if the study culminates ultimately as a balanced combination of co-relational, descriptive and exploratory modes that tend to overlap because the tangible determinants in this narrative do not predominate. Therefore critical inquiry would enable us to raise and answer some pertinent questions.

Geography and Disputes

Geological and geopolitical contours of the arena are somewhat intricate. SCS lies to the

south of China and Taiwan, west of Philippines, northwest of Sabah/Sarawak (Malaysia) and Brunei, north of Indonesia, northeast of Malay Peninsula (Malaysia) and Singapore and east of Vietnam. It has about 250 small islands. Dramatic irony plays at the peak when all the coastal states of SCS appear determined to claim respective sovereignty and get increasingly bitter when any of them is denied approach to any feature by the other party. As a consequence there are multi-layered disputes. However, China claims the entire SCS space through famous (others possibly view it as mischievous) nine-dotted line. It appears like a loft of rope by a cowboy from Chinese coast that almost hugs the entire SCS coast.

Vectoring Security through Economic and Geopolitical Significance

Until recently it received scant attention and the SCS littorals security woes were labelled perhaps as their self-created tomfoolery. However, dawn of third millennium brought SCS into spotlight. According to initial assessment, SCS region has 8 billion barrels of proven oil reserves with 28 billion barrel of possible reserves. As regards natural gas, it has 266 trillion cubic feet. The emergence of another ‘Middle East’ in Asia-Pacific is certainly a bonanza, not only SCS countries would crave for but the entire world because the promise of alternative fuels still remains elusive. Rather lavish territorial claims in SCS by China to secure future oil giants, under the obtaining scenario means a very complex tangle in the region and beyond, particularly when each actor would be weighing options and attempting to assess others’ degree of finesse in the realm of diplomacy.

Another factor that has bolstered the strategic significance of SCS is the enormous volume of cargo that moves through it. Year 2008 statistics show that 58 percent of the world total shipping, worth $ 435 billion went through Malacca and other straits, destined for or emanating from Asia-Pacific region (Oegroseno 2012).  Recently, fast emerging vulnerability of the sea lanes, particularly in the vicinity of choke points where maritime security environments have deteriorated tremendously, has lent SCS an added dimension. Lyzhenkov (2012, p. 4), taking stock of transnational threats did not miss to underscore the need to, ‘enhancing containers security/supply chain security’. On the contrary, impending conflicts or threat of them would deliver a severe blow to operability through the vulnerable sea lanes when hostile state(s) would attempt to interdict energy supplies. SCS makes a critical area of international concern.

SCS Conflict Dynamics

Diplomacy and Posturing Antagonism

A cobweb of conflicting dynamics haunts SCS theatre. Conduct of diplomacy by the states that are party to the dispute and others who legitimise their role under available version of International Law, suggest that all analyses have to conform to different bench marks. An impression that SCS conundrum is being efficiently fed by proxies, paradoxes and profuse pragmatism simultaneously is quite relevant. The explicit stance of every actor has conciliatory tones but some policy manoeuvres made by them appear confrontational. Similarly the bracketing of US, Japan, Australia and India, in sympathy with SCS littorals’ antagonism against China tends to fall apart when the huge stakes of these major powers are seen interdependent as long as all remain focused on the priority objectives of boosting and sustaining their economic potentials and in the process fostering the world peace. Paal (2012) thinks, ‘Strategic objective of United States in Asia is to manage China’s rise.’ Here the clarity of emphasis resides in ‘management’ and not confrontation or tit-for-tat sparring. US contemplated shift to place strategic pivot in Asia-Pacific must have come as a knee-jerk decision for the Chinese, alerting them to draw some obvious deductions, not in sync with their national interests. It was ostensibly flung like a bolt in the international arena. Not denying US, its prerogative to adjust the forces’ strategic posture, had the declaration been preceded by consultations with the main stake holders, it would have generated lesser controversy than it did, particularly when their economies are extensively developed and mutually engaging.

US plan to deploy a sizeable Marines force in Australia, though at considerable distance from China and pushing 60 percent warships into SCS by 2020 would logically force Chinese to assume that the stage is being set to replay World War II Pacific Campaign in reverse order. Matloff (1973, p. 506) noted, ‘By mid 1943…. Major Allied objective was the control of South China Sea and a foothold on the coast of China so as to sever Japanese lines of communications southward and to establish bases from which Japan could…, if necessary, invaded.’ Chinese fear would have touched sky when the emerging pattern of US rebalancing of Asia-Pacific ‘Pivot’ unilaterally is transposed in 21st century, requiring China to substitute Japan. Conversely if there are really no hidden barbs as both need to reassure each other, the two powers can pull on amicably disregard to the fact that Chinese ships and submarines swarm around US West Coast or the US Marines are cruising in SCS with full array of deadly war arsenals. To achieve such a symbiotic equation which is so vital for the fast fragmenting world, some snares would naturally test the diplomats’ wizardry from both sides.

Alliances and Alignments versus Regional Security Sensibilities

Search for new alliances and cooperating partners with compatible geopolitical synergy is an ongoing phenomenon of military history. However, certain moves make others scary and lead to polarisation. Chinese suspicion stands strengthened when US, through strategic alliance with India, is found inclined to inspire it for embracing bigger role in Asia-Pacific maritime security. November 2012 dialogues between US, Japan and India, observed Indian ‘Daily News’, prove that it is not only the forum to address peace time issues but, ‘…leveraging their strengths to shape the Asia-Pacific architecture’, adding further, ‘India sought clarifications from the US about its so called Asia-Pivot Strategy which envisages roping in New Delhi as the lynchpin of security in the region’. Embracing Asia-Pacific role would sound as Indian prerogative; being a potent emerging power in Indian Ocean. However, India might find it hard to encounter China in Pacific even if its military capability is bolstered by US because of Chinese projected forces preponderance and superior strategic orientation in SCS. However, there are vast areas of convergence among US and India. Hence, India has emerged as US’s natural ally. Blumenthal (2007, p. 308) opines, ‘The United States thus has a fundamental interest in assisting India’s rise as a prosperous democracy that contributes to international security. More immediately United States would like to see India play the role of counterweight on China’s western flank (with Japan doing the same in the east).’ The emerging scenario would certainly be perceived by Chinese strategic defence-wizards as pincer in the offing in Asia-Pacific region to clinch China. Some experts are also sceptical about India’s role in Asia-Pacific, fearing that US efforts to march India against China may be a matter of serious conjecture as Indians are known to pursue independent approach to the global issues. Sibal (2012) is of the view, ‘Being a pro-American is not a stigma any longer whether in politics or business… though not at the cost of becoming subservient….’ China has, however, possibly measured the depth of Indo-US strategic alliance and has not felt jittery about it, leaving window of reconciliation open with India for resolution of its border disputes.

Sino, Japan and Vietnam’s Threat Orientation

China and Japan are at odds historically and old wounds among them appear too deep to heel. Though there have been confrontations recently among them, Japan perceives Chinese force projections worrisome but manageable. Holms (2012) asserts that China would employ ‘rope-a-dope strategy’ or ‘shadow boxing’ with fellow Asian powers in the event of crises in Asia-Pacific region and not meet adversaries in direct fleet-to-fleet engagements. Quoting Admiral Yoji Koda, he observed, ‘Chinese leadership can keep the enforcement ships on station near to Senkaku/Diaoyu Island, send PLA Navy task force through…as matter of routine and otherwise overtax finite Japanese leadership and electorate overtime. Ultimately Tokyo may throw in the towel ….’ Conversely Japan seems aware that option of peaceful settlement of dispute would only sell better at an opportune moment on the dialogue table if Japan manages to convince China that East or SCS space would never be exclusive to her but rather inclusive to some or all the littorals. Augmenting Philippines high sea capability by providing her fast manoeuvring gun- boats and scrambling fighter jet recently after an alleged threat of violation by Chinese air craft, were possibly the acts well considered not only by Japan but its allies as well.

The conflict vulnerability in SCS and ECS between China and others vary from low to high probability. Some analysts (Ciorciari & Chen 2012, p. 62) maintain, ‘The Sino-Vietnamese feud is part of a tangled web of competing claims to the Paracel and Spratly chains and the surrounding South China Sea.’ Vietnam is likely to meet incessant Chinese naval provocations at forward foot, assuming that China’s loss of face among international community would be greater after attacking a small neighbour’s navy and China has essentially bigger stakes for sustaining peace as economies are always conflict-shy. China, considering Vietnam’s mischief unbearable may be inclined to drub its navy in short and intense engagements, hoping it would be a well defined deterrent for others. China and Vietnam navies appear to have toyed with access-denial strategy recently as a defensive manoeuvre that leads us to believe that both are maintaining naval alert unobtrusively.

 

China’s Blues and Opposing Manoeuvres

China does not omit noticing US encouraging gestures to Vietnam when, ‘Defence Secretary Leon Panetta visited a deep-water Vietnamese port near the contested South China Sea…, calling access to such harbours critical as the US shifts 60 percent of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020 (Alexander 2012).’ Their protests are also the index of intense feelings raging through Chinese leadership and public alike when US is seen equipping Taiwan’s military with sophisticated weapons. China perceives Taiwan as an integral part of mainland China. Hence US role amounts to encourage Taiwan to shun Chinese overtures of re-unification and prime it as one of the link in, as some call it ‘string of pearls’ or ‘pearls’ necklace’ to consummate a sort of perfect siege around China. However, China is also carving elaborate pearl-nodes to ensure adversaries’ access-denial and exhaust them way short of their objectives in South and ECS. Chinese forays into Central Asia, South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America; mainly to enhance its energy security is met with suspicion by US and her allies as their energy security stands vitally threatened by implications. Almost in parallel context, an observer had raised a question way back, asking, even if the stage setting of transition of hegemony from Anglo-Saxon-centric to Sino-centric world is accepted, remains a lot between the cup and the lips. Will the transition be peaceful or the two sides would end up locked in oil resources war as and when race for oil degenerates to oil stampede (Khan 2008, p.156)?

If China is accused of consuming all its markers, demarcating its possession through entire length and breadth of SCS, still the onus of responsibility to avert rather than initiate a conflict in SCS lies on US because the world hinges hope on US to undertake ‘fire-fight’ anywhere on the planet. Its suspicions that within a few decades, US may be challenged militarily by China are also well within US prerogative to hypothesise. However, US should evolve and attempt strategies away from use of force, preventing triggering of widespread conflagration, spinning out of control. In other words, as a RAND Review (Dobbins & Cliff 2012) suggests, US be well advised to meet such aims by creating a spectre of, ‘Mutual Assured Economic Destruction.’ In other words, US compulsion to remain an economic giant would further sharpen but it would deter any power to risk its economic destruction, as the threat of economic fiasco would outweigh the gains of lucrative military strategic objectives. An objective argument hints about US being alive to such an obligation, ‘Given the growing importance of the US-China relationship and Asia-Pacific more generally, to the global economy, the United States has a major interest in preventing anyone of the various disputes in the South China Sea from escalating militarily (Glaser 2012a, p. 1).’

Legal and Professional Dimensions

Forces Projection and Pretexts

Chinese show of force in SCS and harassing others, sometime searching them, has been a sore point. Their decision to establish a full-fledged Sansha Garrison on Paracel Islands in June 2012 means that another red rag has been flaunted to provoke the arena’s fury. Thus Philippines and Vietnam emphatically denounced such move though China perceives act of some countries contracting foreign oil and gas companies to commence oil exploration in SCS as far more serious breach of trust than establishing a garrison with symbolic connotations rather than operational one. An expert thinks, ‘The decision (of establishing Sansha Garrison) fundamentally challenges two key aspects of the conventional wisdom in Washington about China’s South China Sea strategy: that China’s assertive behaviour results from actions taken by the civil and military agencies independently of the central government and that China has been moderating its policies towards the South China Sea since 2009 (Mastro 2012).’

As regards legalities of claims over the SCS territories through historical documents, China is very well equipped with huge stock of evidence to support its plea since Yuan Dynasty period though it has not shown flare for international arbitration except from the Association of South East Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) platform. There is however, a hope for the remaining SCS states to advance their view point and press for territorial waters concessions because all of them have gone through alteration of boundaries and dynasties over the centuries. Having gained independence generally in 20th Century, some UN conventions and International Laws support their plea to the extent of being granted respective EEZs that at the moment are denied by China. When China has not ruled out negotiations, there is a scope of settlement, step by step through multiple approaches.

Responsibility and Policy paradigm

Shifting of US focus from Middle East to Asia-Pacific can be successful and draw no ire from China though the statement appears self-negating within. It would be successful, heralding an era of peace and reconciliation if the emphasis is about the quest for peace by all parties, particularly, China and US when the latter has lien over decision making of Vietnam and Philippines also, being an ally or potential ally. To do that, a paradox has to be eliminated. Glaser (2012b) comments, ‘China’s neighbours seek greater US economic, diplomatic and military involvement in the region as counter balance to Chinese growing power but at the same time every country in the region also desires a close relationship with Beijing.’ In other words, SCS littorals are pursuing double-stream foreign policy. One, to induce US that it should remain available for all out support, even military. Second, keep Chinese connection sacred and close to heart.

US is in better position to encourage them to develop thorough understanding of China and to work towards mutual recognition of merit of grievances and resolving them rather than turning to US for every thorn-prick. Another aspect which SCS countries have to watch against is the rise of nationalist sentiments for resolving the disputes. No wonders, Vietnam and lately, Philippines have managed to mobilize their youths, condemning China and obfuscating their own governance deficits but it has also propped Chinese youths’ frenzy as a repercussion. They openly question Deng Xiaoping’s policy of appeasing SCS neighbours who advised them to maintain sovereignty over SCS but circumvent all disputes for the sake of economic prosperity of China. Rachman (2012) comments favourably about Deng Xiaoping, ‘It was a brilliant strategy which ensured that China…rapid economic growth without significant international opposition.’ Chinese leadership’s aggressive posture in SCS may be, more often, a response to sooth their youths and middle class on finding narrow political space. At the same time China compensates its loss of international image with propriety of tones at diplomatic levels.

‘Go’ and ‘Shi’ Factor

It is a matter of conjecture whether Chinese stratagem has been understood. Lai (2012) emphasises that it would be possible only if US understood Chinese board game ‘Go’, the oldest, yet modern that is reflected in their philosophy. Interestingly Chinese entire range of philosophical twists are still nourished by ‘Go’ that is compatible and having firm roots in centuries old Sun Tzu’s classical ‘Shi’. The discussions in the Western world are predominantly about the narratives that are usually obvious and not on the wrapped philosophy from which the narratives emanate.  Finkelstein (1999, p. 193) comments would give us the glimpse that he claims to have distilled from wide range of sources, ‘If one were to distil all of the statements of China’s national security objectives, both explicit and implicit, that have been publicly declared or adduced over the last few years they could be distilled to three simple words: sovereignty, modernity, and stability.’ From a western scholar’s point of view it sounds as an all encompassing remark but Chinese philosopher would differ about what he has distilled that relates to every aspiring sovereign state confronting challenges and also because it skips the interpretation through ‘Go’ and ‘Shi’ standards in Chinese context.

Chinese way of war and conduct of diplomacy even today is like water, denoting Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu’s ‘Shi’ (Lai 2012). Water ultimately finds a flow-path. Conversely, Western art of war and diplomacy flow from Greek traditions; chivalrous, agile like a boxer and have tendency to match force on force, seeking immediate result on the battlefield, assumed as chessboard, even at enormous cost in men and material.

Western diplomats found during early 70s US-China thaw that when the West spoke of events maturing in months and years, Chinese planned on span of dynasties. In other words, to push negotiations against the tide of time and expecting to pluck the success like a plum from dialogue table is dangerous. During Cold War era, America won over China against Soviet Union with patience and perseverance. What is relevant part of the argument here is to highlight a point that US and its allies may not be finding rhythm with China on the security issue of SCS and getting frustrated with her but for China, SCS may be a board game on which is being played ‘Go’ and ‘Shi’.

Conclusions

SCS security dilemma is not only complex but challenging. US and China emerge after evaluation from all angles of the calculus, the sole powers who would decide the destiny of SCS. However, the constructive role of other SCS border states cannot be relegated to lesser significance. The lesser powers in the region got to muster an increased sense of faith in multilateral dialogue option. Economic inter-dependability is emerging vital ground to shun war and violence as execrable acts. Spread of prosperity through economic interdependence would keep the world hostage to peace. That will remain a welcome proposition.

China, being militarily strong in SCS, draws obvious flak for coercing neighbours through its forward if not aggressive posture, driven by its weakness of domestic politics, an aspect the West does not always take into account. An analyst, who is more familiar with ‘Go’ and ‘Shi’, made very realistic remarks: Over the next decade or so, the Middle Kingdom’s future will hinge on the dynamic between the fear of revolution and the hope for political reform. The threat of revolution from below may push the elite to pursue incremental yet bold political reform. Should reform fail, however, revolt may well be the upshot. And the unfolding drama, wherever it leads, will undoubtedly have profound ramifications far beyond China’s borders (Li 2013, p. 47). Hence Chinese exercise to keep the courtyard in order may be leaning on SCS geopolitics as an instrument of effective appeasement, directed inwardly.

SCS littorals and others with heavy stakes in the arena have to avoid making it the pivot of geopolitics. Choong (2013) quotes a Chinese professor, raising very pertinent questions, ‘If China doesn`t have a Cold War mentality, why does it see the US as the main threat? If the US doesn`t have a Cold War mentality, why does it deploy so many troops in Asia? To obviate unwinding of plethora of irritants, sagacity points to an opportunity for both the arch actors to settle down, talk and build an edifice of peace that embraces South as well as ECS. Therefore, one would hinge huge hope on new leadership of China and the renewed leadership of United States of America to mobilise and commit their energies toward this end. ‘Shi’ and ‘Chess’ compatibility has to be explored as two-way responsibility and there is no other option.

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Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan is a retired Brig Gen from Pakistan Army, served 32 years. A veteran of ‘1971 Indo-Pak War’ has been instructor in officers’ Pakistan Military Academy, commanded Divisional as well as Corps Artillery. Holds first class Masters degree in International Relations and PhD degree, acquired in 2002-2007 from University of Peshawar, Pakistan. Authored a book, writes frequently in national and international media. Has attended several seminars and conferences within the country and abroad on invitation. Travelled to Switzerland (twice), UK, US, UAE, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Germany (twice). Cambodia and Thailand. Email: dr.makni49@yahoo.com

East Asia

The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?

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The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time.  Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens.  Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?

The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines.  When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger.  So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.

Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal.  Intended to counter China, it offers Australia  advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer.  Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.

The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants.  It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites. 

Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies.  In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese.  Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make.  Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities.  Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there. 

China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.

The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government.  And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state.  The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.

The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following.  As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France.  It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.

If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them.  The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China

It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support.  Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?   

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East Asia

Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing

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Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production.  On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?

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In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?

Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”

In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.

But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.   

To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü  Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)

Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).

Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.   

Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”    

A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.

Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?

Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.  

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East Asia

How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It

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Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.

In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken  the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a  ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens. 

“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict.  In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.

Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.

In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies  offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.

Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.

These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.

What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence

Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility.  Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.

Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China.  An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:

  • Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
  • Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;  
  • Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
  • Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
  • Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver;  and
  • Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.

Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.

*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.

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