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.
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’.
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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The Uyghur militant threat: China cracks down and mulls policy changes
China, responding to United Nations criticism, academic and media reports, and an embarrassing court case in Kazakhstan, has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic north-western province of Xinjiang in what it asserts is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times charged in its Chinese and English editions that the criticism and reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang, China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uyghur and ethnic minority Central Asian Muslim communities.
The crackdown, involving introduction of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment and prevent blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial base in Iraq and Syria.
Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15 percent of its proven oil reserves, 22 per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal, has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia in contradiction to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.
The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,’” the paper said.
Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded last week in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.
The Global Times admitted that the Chinese effort to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”
China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps but the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said last week that it had credible reports that one million Uyghurs, were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US Congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”
Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort, partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps, to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.
Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.
Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was ‘following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”
Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.
China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.
Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities.
Said Middle East scholar Randa Slim discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib: “You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.
Sino-American Strategic Rivalry
From a strategy point of view, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are similar in least in one respect: Sun Tzu’s idea of moving swiftly to overcome resistance is similar to the one endorsed by Clausewitz and practiced by Napoleon.
The modern day example can be traced to the 2003 “shock and awe” campaign by the U.S. in Iraq and the Iraqi reliance on a strategy similar to Russian defense against Napoleon’s attack in his Russian Campaign of 1812. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the beginning of the end of his ambition. He won many battles but lost the war.
And America is suffering from the same fate as the struggle for a new Iraqi political identity is not going to go the American way. The same can be said about Afghanistan.
This is precisely why discussions on war must be assessed from a geopolitical point of view as Clausewitz has noted that “war is an extension of politics”. And the reverse is also true, one may add.
A quick tour of modern history reveals the true winners and losers of wars, by comparing a country’s power before and after a war. The United Kingdom and Germany were both losers of the two World Wars. And the difference of losses between them is a matter of degree.
But the U.K. suffered greater and irreversible losses than Germany. The British ceded its number one geopolitical leadership position in the world to the United States. But Germany has been able to regain its position as Europe’s great economic and political power, while the prospects of the U.K. taking back the world leadership position from the U.S. are next to none.
America has been a geopolitical winner overall since the two World Wars. But its power has been in relative decline. It has failed to advance its power after the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria. It has failed so far to advance the momentum created by the Arab Spring as it has since become the Arab Winter, or to make much headway in Latin America, in Ukraine, and in Africa.
America’s key failures in the past decade are failures in being able to offer tangible economic benefits to target countries while expanding its military involvements. The country can win military battles because of its overwhelming fire power but has not been successful in its after-war “nation building” efforts.
Despite China’s numerous shortcomings, many developing countries quietly wish they could become a mini-China economically. They want to live better with more consumption but they probably want to do it by being able to build up their country’s infrastructure and an industrial base.
America’s recent announcement that it will invest $113 million in technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific as part of a new strategy to deepen ties with the region has received jaw-dropping reception – sarcastically speaking.
As an example, a survey of North American light rail projects shows that costs of most LRT systems range from $15 million to over $100 million per mile. So how far $113 million or even $1.13 billion can go even if one is to factor in some discounts if projects are implemented in lower cost Indo-Pacific countries? Remember, $113 million is for countries as in plural!
This pales in comparison to China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) that ranges between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. BRI is not without its problems and critics. Concerns have been raised about increases in some participating countries’ level of national debt as a result of massive infrastructure building. But because of the scale of the initiative, even if it could only succeed at the lowest end of the range, would offer some real and substantial benefits to countries that can benefit from it.
While freedom and democracy are ideals that have universal support in the abstract – the key words here are “in the abstract” – successful nation-building efforts are realized in the nitty-gritty of people’s everyday economic well-being. This is particularly true among developing countries.
Cheap Chinese smart phones have enabled Africans to get market information to transact with one another more beneficially, to acquire news and information, to lower transaction costs through mobile payments. Inexpensive Chinese motor bikes have become life-saving vehicles for rural populations carrying goods to markets as well as the sick to clinics or hospitals many miles away that they previously could not do.
While the U.S. is no doubt keen on promoting democracy, it is the Chinese that provide affordable smart phones to the masses that allow the spread of information.
While some of the best and the brightest, the elites, the upper middle class in developing countries may desire to have an opportunity to earn an Ivey League degree, to emigrate to the U.S. for better opportunities, to acquire an American passport as an insurance policy, it’s the Chinese that are doing the grunt work of building and training local personnel to conduct trains, to train electrical power linemen to install and repair of overhead or underground power lines as well as to maintain and repair of other electrical and hydro-electrical subsystems and components.
Regardless of how one’s view of China’s strategic intents in its international involvements, the strategies between the U.S. and China cannot be more different. China builds and America destroys.
But many countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region are taking advantage of the rivalry between these two powers to extract the best deals for themselves and you can’t blame them. Economically they want to cooperate with China but militarily they want to get a free ride from the U.S. and the U.S. does not mind that as long as it falls within America’s China Containment strategy.
And time will tell which strategy will work better – economic cooperation or military encirclement?
The 70th Anniversary of the Koreas
Seventy years ago, the Korean nation was divided into two separate states. On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was founded in the south of the Korean Peninsula, and on September 9, 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in the north.
A Longstanding Confrontation
The Korean War of 1950–1953, which saw the United States fighting on the side of the South under the UN flag, was the bloodiest and most destructive conflict since World War II. De jure, the two Korean states are still at war. This is because the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953 to stop the war is nothing but an agreement between the commanders-in-chief of the two armies to suspend military hostilities. Two powerful military contingents with cutting-edge weapons and equipment are still at the ready on both sides of the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea. And these contingents are not just made up of Korean troops. Under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea, U.S. contingent of 28,500 troops is deployed in South Korea. When Pyongyang started to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to prevent the United States from intervening in the inter-Korean military conflict, this further exacerbated the situation.
“The Asian Tiger” and a “Rogue State”
Today, South Korea is referred to as the “Asian Tiger.” It is a highly developed and prosperous state: it is the world’s second-largest shipbuilder; the third-largest manufacturer of semi-conductors and displays; the fifth-largest automobile manufacturer; and the six-largest producer of steel. South Korea invests 4 per cent of its GDP into research, more than any other OECD member, and it has the fourth-largest number of patent applications for inventions, behind the United States, Japan and China. Seoul has its own space programme and has plans to send its first probe to the Moon’s orbit by 2020 and another to its surface by 2025.
North Korea certainly lags behind South Korea in its economic development; however, statements about the country’s cultural and technological backwardness are largely the work of western media. And we are not only talking about the fact that Pyongyang would not have been able to develop its own nuclear programme that the world is so concerned about if it did not have a high level of scientific and industrial development. No one can deny that the new blocks of high-rise buildings in Pyongyang are practically indistinguishable from those in Seoul, that Pyongyang’s metro is a year older than Seoul’s, and that North Korea launched its artificial satellite before South Korea did.
Since North Korea has its own nuclear programme, the United States has declared it a “rogue state” and has not only imposed its own sanctions on the country, but has also managed to have very harsh sanctions imposed on it by the UN Security Council. It is curious, however, that the timing of the sanctions against North Korea (after the country carried out its first nuclear test) coincided with the North Korean economy emerging from the very severe economic crisis of 1995–2000, after it had overcome famine and started to show signs of economic growth. Even more paradoxically, economic growth in North Korea picked up pace significantly in 2012–2013, when the sanctions were tightened. This was primarily due to the fact that when Kim Jong-un came to power, he launched active, albeit quiet, market reforms in the country.
From Confrontation to Dialogue
The tension around Korea has been one of the greatest threats to international security in recent years. Today, the global community is focused on forcing Pyongyang to abolish its nuclear programme. However, this alone will not eliminate the threat of a new Korean war involving the United States, South Korea’s military ally. Shutting down North Korea’s nuclear programme requires, first, a reconciliation between the two Koreas and, second, solid guarantees to Pyongyang that the United States will not take aggressive measures.
2018 was marked by important positive events in Korean affairs. On April 27, President of South Korea Moon Jae-in met with the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom. Naturally, this summit between the heads of two Koreas (only the third ever) did not resolve all the problems that had accumulated in the bilateral relations over the decades of confrontation. However, it did open the way to move on to specific talks on trade and economic cooperation and a military and political détente.
We also saw the first ever U.S.–North Korea dialogue on the North Korean nuclear programme, with a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un being held in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Even though the summit’s declaration contains nothing more than generic phrases, one thing is without doubt: no nuclear or conventional war will take place in Korea in the near future. The handshake between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is a real contribution to the cause of peace in Korea and throughout the world.
A Complex Knot of Problems
The North Korean leadership is clearly interested in a détente on the Korean Peninsula. While the Byungjin line proclaimed by Kim Jong-un several years ago entailed building a powerful nuclear potential and creating a prosperous economy, in April 2018 the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea said that success in building the nuclear potential allowed North Korea to focus all efforts on building a socialist economy.
The proof of Pyongyang’s words is contained in its actions. Not a single nuclear test has been carried out for almost a year now, and missile tests have not been held for over six months. North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site has been shut down.
Pyongyang appears to have a precise step-by-step programme of possible bargaining with both Seoul and Washington on mutual security commitments. Kim Jong-un, however, is clearly dragging his feet in developing the positive work started at the summits with Moon and Trump. The reason appears to be that he is not confident that both his opponents will stick to the deals. Back in the day, the conservative President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak had no qualms about abolishing his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” in the country’s relations with North Korea, while George W. Bush did not hesitate to get rid of Bill Clinton’s “North Korea Appeasement Policy.” Is there any guarantee that in a couple of years, peace-loving Moon will not be replaced with some North Korea hater, or that Trump, Kim’s counterpart in Singapore, will not be impeached?
The nuclear disarmament of North Korea and the provision of security guarantees to Pyongyang is too complicated a knot of problems to be cut in a single stoke, and by the sole hands of the United States. The solution requires multilateral international efforts, and this cannot be done without the involvement of China and Russia, two countries that have historical and geographical ties with Korea. It would appear that both the Koreas are counting on the participation of Russia and China. This much is clear from the fact that Kim Jong-un has visited China twice over the past two months, and President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea Kim Yong-nam and President of South Korea Moon Jae-in have both paid official visits to Moscow.
The optimal way would be to go back to the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear programme: the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. The talks should be structured as step-by-step negotiations using the principle of “action in exchange for action.” It would be wise at the initial stage to propose that North Korea’s nuclear programme be separated from its missile programme. North Korea’s nuclear status is set forth in the country’s Constitution, and this subject currently appears non-negotiable for Pyongyang. At the same time, a freeze on the missile programme and guarantees of non-proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies can be negotiated. Given that Pyongyang has essentially introduced a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, the issue of lifting some sanctions from North Korea may be raised at the UN Security Council to stimulate Pyongyang to further roll back on its nuclear and missile programme. For instance, to get North Korea to stop developing ICBMs, freeze the production of nuclear materials and open its nuclear facilities for international inspections.
Several purely political steps would also be useful. For instance, it would be good to correct the entirely unnatural situation in which the United Nations, as a party to the Korean War (in that war, Pyongyang’s enemy fought under the UN flag), is still officially at war with North Korea, one of its members. For that purpose, the upcoming session of the UN General Assembly could adopt a UN Security Council declaration stating that the Korean War is in the past and that the UN Security Council is putting an end to that chapter and, therefore, the UN Command is no longer needed in Korea.
To further promote the inter-Korean détente, it would probably be useful for North Korea and South Korea to conclude an agreement between commanders-in-chief of the two countries on preventing dangerous military activities; such an agreement could serve as a landmark on the road to concluding a Peace Treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement. This would mean that any incidents that may arise due to dangerous military activities would be promptly stopped and settled through peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force. The document could be based on provisions of the 2015 Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Korean Affairs and Russia
The best way to diffuse tensions between neighbouring states and establish relations based on mutual trust is to run joint, long-term and mutually profitable economic or scientific and technological projects in. Russia could play a prominent part in such work on the Korean Peninsula.
The two Korean states are immediate neighbours of Russia, and Russia is interested in having good and mutually beneficial relations with both. And there is a good basis for this to happen. Historically, Russia has never had any disputes with either of the Koreas. Russians have never set foot in Korea as an aggressor. On the contrary, the country has always welcomed Korean people into its territory: 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of Korean resettlement in Russia. In 1945, it was the Soviet Army that liberated Korea from the colonial power.
There are no disputes between Russia and either of the Koreas today either. The leadership of South Korea, for instance, stresses its interest in taking its relations with Russia to the level of “strategic partnership.” It is noteworthy that, despite the persistent pressure of the Unites States, South Korea did not join the sanctions against Russia imposed after the events in Ukraine.
During his three meetings with Vladimir Putin over the past year, Moon Jae-in has unfailingly stressed collaboration with Moscow on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, establishing peace there and developing Eurasia. Economically, South Korea that has virtually no mineral or other resources and is highly interested in exploring the natural wealth of Siberia and the Far East. At the same time, Russia is a promising market for South Korea’s industrial products.
South Korea is also ready to collaborate with Russia in those areas where Russia has globally competitive technologies. This much is evident from the participation of Roscosmos in the construction of South Korea’s Naro Space Center, the flight of a South Korean astronaut with two Russian cosmonauts in a Russian spacecraft, the launch of the Russia–South Korea Naro-1 (KSLV-1) launch vehicle, and the fact that South Korea imports Russian uranium for its nuclear power plants to meet over a third of its needs. Bilateral humanitarian ties are also being developed. South Korea is the only country in Northeast Asia that has a visa-free travel agreement with Russia.
During President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to Moscow in June 2018, the parties agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in the areas of civil aircraft building, automobile manufacturing, shipbuilding and the construction and modernization of shipyards in Russia. The parties intend to expand cooperation in space research, the exploration of the Northern Sea Route and the joint development of oil and gas fields. Concluding a Free Trade Agreement would be a landmark moment in the development of trade and economic cooperation.
As regards North Korea, Russia’s relations with the country were on a downturn in the 1990s. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000, the signing of the Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighbourly Relations and Cooperation in February 2000, and settling the issue of North Korea’s debt to Russia in 2012 all paved the way for the restoration a full-fledged partnership between Russia and North Korea. Such a development was intended to give a powerful impetus to trade and economic relations both in the Russia–North Korea bilateral format, and in a trilateral format with the participation of South Korea, thus contributing to building bridges in inter-Korean cooperation.
During the Russia–South Korea summit held in Moscow this past June, the two parties expressed interest in trilateral projects between Russia, South Korea and North Korea, such as: linking the Trans-Korean Main Line to the Trans-Siberian Railway; building a pipeline between Russia and North and South Korea; and connecting the power grids of the three countries. The problem is, however, that implementing these trilateral projects is currently hampered by sanctions imposed on Pyongyang due to its nuclear programme, as is the development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea.
Further dialogue on the matter is expected at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2018, to which Vladimir Putin has invited the leaders of both Korean states.
The two Korean states are celebrating their 70 th anniversaries while gradually retreating from confrontation algorithms formed by the Cold War. It is in the interests of everyone that a reconciliation of the two Koreas is achieved and a solution to the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is developed.
North and South Korea should become full-fledged members of the comprehensive security system in Northeast Asia.
First published in our partner RIAC
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