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South China sea security dilemma

Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan

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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

China’s road freight problem and its solutions

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Shifting freight off China’s roads could be key to tackling air pollution in the 14th Five Year Plan period (2021-25), according to an annual report by the environment ministry. ​

Motorised vehicles have become a key driver of pollution; a single diesel truck creates as much pollution in China as 200 private cars. Diesel-powered goods vehicles are in fact responsible for 60% of the nitrogen oxides and 85% of the particulate matter pollution released on China’s roads, despite making up only 8% of all vehicles. These vehicles are thus a central target for pollution control measures.

Polluting road freight

National average levels of PM2.5 – the most dangerous particulate matter pollution for human health – dropped 27% between 2015 and 2019, according to the latest report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. But nitrogen dioxide levels fell only 9%, while ozone actually rose 11%. The transportation sector is China’s third largest source of nitrogen oxides, second only to coal-fired power stations and industry. It is also the second largest source of ozone, after industry, accounting for 20% of the total.

Between 2013 and 2018, the number of heavy-duty diesel vehicles on Chinese roads increased an average of 4% per year. 

Li Ganjie, head of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), said at a recent meeting on national environmental protection work that “the reliance on road freight remains unchanged,” a fact he described as a weak point in the MEE’s work to manage the environment.

According to the MEE’s “2018 China Vehicle Environmental Management Annual Report”, the nature of pollution in many Chinese cities is changing. What was once simply a product of coal-burning is now a more complex mix coming from coal, vehicles and secondary pollutants. Data released by the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress in mid-January shows that mobile pollution sources, not coal-burning and industry, are now the main cause of PM2.5 in the city, accounting for 45% of annual emissions.

Tackling diesel vehicle emissions is not easy. At the China Blue Sky Observers Forum in December last year, Ni Hong, a researcher at the MEE’s Vehicle Emissions Monitoring Centre, said that the majority of these vehicles are owned by their drivers, some of whom adulterate their fuel to lower cost. Vehicles may also avoid environmental checks, be driven above the speed limit, overloaded or in breach of emissions standards. The authorities do not have the capacity to carry out full checks, or to ensure that issues are resolved.

Another approach would be to rely less on roads to carry freight around the country and more on the alternatives.

Costs associated with shifting to rail or water

It is cleaner to move freight by rail, rivers, canals and coastal shipping than by road. Commonly accepted industry figures show rail uses one-seventh of the energy needed to move the same goods by road, and produces one-thirteenth of the nitrogen oxides and PM2.5. Transportation by water, meanwhile, uses one-fourteenth of the energy and produces one-fifteenth of the pollution.

But the bulk of China’s freight still travels by road. Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics show that in the past decade the proportion of road freight has fluctuated around the 76% mark, while water transport has increased a little in the last five years and rail freight is actually decreasing. Road freight accounts for too much long-distance transport of commodities such as coal, ores, and iron and steel. Progress in moving these bulk goods off the roads is slow.

Speaking at the forum, Xu Honglei, a senior researcher at the Ministry of Transport, said this is down to distorted pricing. There is fierce price competition in the road freight sector, with varying degrees of unhealthy competition, low prices and overloading. Meanwhile, market reforms of the rail sector are proceeding slowly, with transportation costs not coming down. “When moving bulk goods a distance of less than 800km, door-to-door prices for rail are usually higher than for road,” he said. “And road freight haulers offer a single price, while rail freight includes various miscellaneous fees.”

In a 2018-2020 plan for restructuring the transportation sector, the State Council called for “deeper market reforms of rail freight prices, a complete and flexible freight pricing system, and the use of the market to allocate resources,” in order to increase the amount of freight moved by rail. But so far, rail freight market reforms have had very little effect.

Zhao Jian, director of Beijing Jiaotong University’s China Urbanisation Research Centre, recently wrote in Caixin that when taking administrative measures to move freight from road to rail, the government needs to improve efficiency and speed in order to meet market needs. That means looking at how the railways are managed, and carrying out more extensive reforms.

Zhao Jian wrote that rail freight in China remains, in great degree, a monopoly. The China State Railway Group keeps overall control of all railway assets and finances nationwide, with 18 regional railway bureaus managing local freight operations. Zhao thinks this renders railway freight companies unable to respond to market demands. Regional railway bureaus cannot earn income directly, as payments must pass through the China State Railway Group. Nor can they set their own prices or purchase or dispose of assets, and they have no incentive to reduce costs. As each bureau covers too small an area, and rail freight in China usually travels over 700km, they are often unable to guarantee shipments will arrive on time, respond to rapidly changing market demands, or adopt modern logistics systems – and so they lose a great deal of business.

At the forum in December, Xu Honglei also pointed out that rail, road and water freight networks are not interconnected with infrastructure allowing goods to move between them. Meanwhile, dedicated railway lines to serve ports, logistics zones and large industrial and mining firms are underdeveloped; they suffer from poor quality links to the rest of the network.

Peng Chuansheng of the China Waterborne Transport Research Institute at the Ministry of Transport told China Dialogue that unless customers have their own docks, trucks are still needed to shift water freight from docks to factories. “It might work out cheaper for the company to just use road freight,” he said.

Improving rail and water freight

Experts say faster market reforms and better infrastructure and transportation links are needed to allow rail and water freight to reduce costs and make use of their competitive advantages.

Zhao Jian thinks the best way to boost the vitality of rail freight firms is to break the railway monopoly. In his Caixin article, he suggested restructuring the 18 railway bureaus into three larger regional rail companies, with the China State Railways Group to be a holding company, responsible for managing capital. The three new companies would have control within their regions and be able to set prices and acquire or dispose of assets, become market actors in their own right. He told China Dialogue that this approach could be trialled by expanding some railway bureaus to cover wider areas. The Harbin and Shenyang bureaus could be restructured into a single bureau covering north-east China, for example. This would reduce the barriers preventing rail freight from making use of its advantages.

Commenting on the lack of freight infrastructure, Xu Honglei said at the forum that work to build railway main and dedicated lines should continue, rail services to businesses and logistics zones should be improved, and links at freight hubs improved. On water freight, Peng Chuansheng said the government should encourage companies to have their own docks, giving them a direct link with ports.

There is no doubt that some transportation of bulk goods could be shifted from road to rail and water. However, road still has an advantage in parcel freight, and China’s express delivery sector is growing rapidly. Data from the postal authorities show 50 million express deliveries were made in 2018, up 26.6% on the previous year. These rapid deliveries of smaller items must still be made by road. Peng Chuansheng said industrial restructuring and changes in the energy mix will mean goods being moved will be smaller and lighter, but more valuable, requiring faster deliveries and better services. Rail and water freight cannot yet provide these. 

The rapid growth of parcel deliveries by road reminds us that while changing the freight transportation mix is important, reducing emissions from road freight remains an urgent task.

From our partner chinadialogue.net

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East Asia

BRI to Health Silk Route: How COVID-19 is Changing Global Strategic Equations?

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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The beginning of 2020 brought a wild card entry into global strategic equations in the form of Coronavirus Pandemic, with Wuhan being the initial epicentre in December 2019. China will continue to be accused to have done global damage by hiding crucial timely information from rest of the world to be able to respond to COVID-19. China has gone through full cycle of initially hiding it, being late in quarantining affected people, not being able to prevent community transfers causing exponential rise in affected cases in the beginning, taking harsh measures to control it after peaking, bringing down the affected cases, declaring victory over pandemic, reopening lockdowns and boosting ‘COVID-19 Economy’ over ‘Health Silk Route’. The trends in January and February suggested a sheer drop in Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China with combined effect of US-China trade war, failing BRI and COVID-19. The last week of March 2020 saw the epicenters of COVID-19 shifting westwards with US, Europe and UK emerging to be worst affected, entering stage three of the pandemic cycle and China posing itself to be helping the world to combat the pandemic, trending a comparative steep rise in its CNP, by pushing down everyone else. Rest of the world continues to be engaged in protecting its citizens in their critical phase of their pandemic cycle, rightly looking at saving its citizens with every possible means as first priority, even if it amounts to taking Chinese help, leaving out the blame game for later occasion.

What does Global shift in Epicenters of COVID-19 Indicate?

By March 30, 2020, 22:07 GMT, the coronavirus COVID-19 has affected200 countries and territories around the world and two international conveyances.  The worldometer indicates over 7.8 lakh cases of coronavirus with over 37,000 deaths and over 1.6 lakh recoveries. The WHO puts the death rate continues to be low but the biggest danger being faced by the mankind is its exponential rise due to community transfers. USA has emerged to be the largest epicenter of COVID-19 having more than 19 percent of global confirmed cases with nearing three thousand deaths, earmarking $2.2trillion allocation for combating the pandemic. Europe led by Italy (with over one lakh cases and 11,500 deaths overtaking China in number of cases) closely followed by Spain, Germany, France, Iran and UK. The biggest jolt suffered is the number of deaths on March 30, 2020 counting 913, 812, 418, 385, 247 in Spain, Italy, France US and UK respectively. All these are cases of taking the pandemic lightly initially resulting into quick entry into third stage of community transfer. Now most countries in the world are struggling for capacity building to take the challenge of peak period, which is yet to come. This lock down/quarantining patients/suspects has brought global economic/commercial productivity to almost a grinding halt.

China was quick to declare that it has conquered the disease with reporting 75,700 recovered cases, only31 fresh cases, four fresh deaths and only 2466 active cases.(March 30, 2020, 22:07 GMT)as reported by the National Health Commission (NHC) of China. Considering Chinese credibility, these figures cannot be taken at its face value, because some media reports of sudden silencing of much more mobiles connections, restrictions on reporting COVID-19 cases do create a doubt as to what exactly is happening in China. The community lock downs, and stringent measures of social distancing helped China in flattening the trend. If we add the unreported cases the potential of second cycle of pandemic in China cannot be ruled out. Chinese effort of shifting soft power balance is also evident from alleged effective use of its influence and media to propagate conspiracy theory against US and later trying to shift the blame to Italy using paid media, think tanks and institutions. The world however will continue to accuse China for this pandemic, with many legal notices already filed against it globally.

China cannot deny that by its own admission, the coronavirus broke out in China late last year whereas Wuhan was locked down on January 23.The US efforts to evacuate its people at that point of time were seen as ‘triggering panic reaction’ by Beijing, which had already over-delayed global response by then. China tried to shift the narrative to the belligerent superpower wrangling between Beijing and Washington great power competition, viewing each other through a lens of conspiracy theories, hostility, trading stinging barbs on everything from the origin of the virus, permitting medical experts to visit Wuhan to who should be blamed for the pandemic. China and US were already at lowest trust level over issues, such as the trade war, South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, hence the same narrative was used by China to confuse the world and shift global anger away from it. With evidences destroyed, denying access to global bodies, the script of global pandemic was already written. China has a reason to be keen to repair its damaged global reputation caused due to mishandling of the crisis in the initial stage, with exploding infections around the world in last two months, possible loss of face, ensuing disrespect of other countries; hence it  behaved so assertively in the diplomatic repairs including ‘Mask Diplomacy’. The slow reaction and reluctance to lock down by US might show that the US-China competition is moving China’s way, but the Chinese follies of making the world suffer by their late reporting may not put Xi Jinping in comfortable position either, although it’s too early to predict. 

Trade War to Mask diplomacy and Health Silk Route

The CNP of a country is a combination of hard and soft power and includes sum of economic, military, technological, human resource, diplomatic and other levers of power. China claiming to have successfully encountered COVID-19, has kickstarted its industry after being the cause of paralysis of industrial power of everyone else, with focus on largest emerging demand of medical equipment related to combating COVID-19. After IMF Chief’s revelation that the global economy has entered recession, which could possibly be worst of its kind, China got a new lifeline to its economic revival with a competitive advantage in comparison to others.Chinese economy seems to be benefitting from others peril, with factories commencing work at 66 percent efficiency including foreign companies like Apple, domestic flights commencing in most areas, life limping back to normal and upsurge in demand with more people in markets. China after exporting  the pandemic globally, is now making best of COVID19 economic model  by switching from failing BRI to COVID19 related production. It is also disposing COVID related equipment surplus to mute expected accusations of risking humanity.China has thus tried to benefit itself not only in comparative economic terms, but also shift the equation in soft power, by projecting itself as better resource provider in this crisis.China is also trying to economically benefit from the monopolistic opportunity from the crisis by focusing its manufacturing base on production of testing kits, personal protection kits, ventilators and other crucial medical equipment. China, therefore leads the global supply chain with other major manufacturers paralyzed due to the pandemic, although like BRI, its reliability is suspected, due to the fact that five countries have reported supply of defective equipment. 

Why is the World Silent?

The fact that Coronavirus was detected, and it spread exponentially in Wuhan, China may find difficult to prevent the accusations from the world, angered by sufferings caused due to pandemic. It is however understandable that not many have started blaming China, due to their domestic compulsion and priorities to check the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, instead of involving in blame game for the time being. Most countries are also expecting Chinese assistance in their fight against the pandemic, as China is seen to have controlled the same, having gone through the peak of infection and successfully controlled it. Most countries also hope that a suspected creator of the virus is in best position to find antidote and help in combating it. Countries also do not want to disturb the supply chain of medical equipment from China at this juncture. The outcome of G20 virtual Summit was also on the same lines, wherein the G20 leaders issued a statement at the end of the summit calling for a coordinated global response to fight the coronavirus pandemic and adopting measures to protect the global economy, minimize disruptions in trade and take steps to enhance global coordination. The G20 leaders pledged to inject $5 trillion into the global economy to reduce the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. I do feel that this issue of holding China accountable will not be dead, but re-appear sometime in future. There are already few lawsuits already filed against China for the same and some more may be in the offing.

On a practical note, it is understandable that the world cannot fight this pandemic without global cooperation, which includes China. It owes responsibility to act first and help others with capacity to fight the Coronavirus, after letting the genie out of bottle, more so when the US has to focus inwards due to looming domestic crisis of COVID-19. It’s also in China’s interests to act to repair and restore its global image. Curbing media will not suppress global criticism. If technologically advanced countries canutilize their capacities, especially on joint research and development of vaccine, and strengthening the global value chain of supplies of medical equipment, it will help the humanity.

Credibility of UN Organizations?

The pandemic has also exposed the Chinese influence in global bodies claiming to be neutral and serving for humanity. WHO knew about the outbreak of coronavirus in January 2020 and declared it as pandemic only on March11,2020, losing precious time for the world to respond, presumably under pressure from China? In an interview on the question of helping Taiwan, the WHO officer fumbled and did not reply, under pressure of ‘One China Policy’. How can WHO claim to serve humanity leaving out Taiwanese population? In recent G20 virtual Summit chaired by Saudi Arabia, the group has been too generous to WHO in agreeing to extend support to strengthen its mandate in the fight against pandemic including delivery of diagnostic tools, treatments, medical supplies and vaccines, because their services are urgently needed at this juncture, but it needs to be held accountable once the crisis is over.

United Nation Security Council (UNSC) has not found it relevant to discuss about it and even have virtual consultation on this pandemic, because China is a P5 country, chairs UNSC for March 2020 and the monthly Chair decides the agenda. It never felt the need to investigate when Wuhan was under lock down and writings of the potential pandemic were on the wall even earlier. UNSC certainly requires restructuring because in the current system China or any P5 country in its place, with its veto power can get away easily, even after putting humanity to risk. The suspicion over COVID-19 being a product of Chinese biological weapon research in Wuhan, could have been settled if China would have allowed investigation by world bodies.It is too late to put the trust back now, after accusations of China having destroyed the evidences and continuing to change the narrative besides other diversionary tactics.

Will it lead to Changed World Order?

Thinking positively, even if the world is able to fight this pandemic successfully, the global strategic equation will never remain the same. Coronavirus pandemic has exposed weaknesses of China, US and world organizations to the humanity. While China can be accused of lack of transparency in handling the COVID-19 initially, the US can be accused of taking it lightly and reacting late enough, not to be able to help countries, which do not have requisite capacities to fight it. The idea of putting national interest over survival of humanity, and appearing to be inward looking, will lower the confidence of world community in US as well as China. The western countries led by US have been used to fighting the strategic competition by controlling trade and financial system as well as power of alliance, but unpredictable events like this pandemic, climate change, elements of non-contact warfare can change the entire equation. US may also realize that it was a mistake to propagate China as global manufacturing hub, and it now faces a grave challenge from this manufacturing giant with key digital technologies. China can also not be on a comfortable ground, because the autocratic model cannot work for eternity, as the magnitude of external and internal dissent/public anger cannot be estimated now. While China may feel to be recovering and compliment itself to have fought it better than democratic countries, but the success of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong nullifies that claim. It also remains to be seen in future that China has pushed many countries against itself or otherwise. The world will also realize its mistake of putting all eggs in Chinese basket and hopefully a reverse flow may occur post pandemic.  The credibility of UN is at stake, which is increasingly been seen as political tool of P5. In my opinion unless it undergoes a drastic reformation, especially the UNSC, there will be many countries ignoring its relevance and resolutions. With a threat of second cycle of COVID-19, no one can be sure that who is better placed in the future strategic equation.

What is the role of India?

India has the second largest population in the world next to China, which claims to have got over its peak period of pandemic. Indian efforts have been appreciated so far. WHO and the global community feels that densely populated countries like India will determine “the future of this pandemic”?The latest epicenters are US and Europe, yet the world is anxious about Indian fight against COVID-19, because of extremely high population density, possible administrative difficulties in tackling the pandemic and logistics attached with the lockdown. India, as a developing country, besides combating pandemic, faces a bigger challenge feeding, administering, managing migrating population, implementing social distancing and healthcare for a large number of people including unorganized sector workers, in view of its limited infrastructure. While there is no need to panic with over 1250 cases identified and 32 deaths so far, but its capacity to isolate communities is the biggest challenge in the world, which cannot be combatted without public participation. The low figures of reported cases so far, are subject to testing rate and India is yet to improve its recovery cases which are relatively low (Below 10% against global average of 20%). The death rate is low so far, but the main challenge lies ahead, as the curve has not flattened as yet. India needs to ensure not to enter into community spread (next stage) of COVID19outbreak.Indians need to follow all instructions from the Government and health specialists to ensure that it remains low. Although a lot is being done by the government and other agencies, the public and private sectors have to jointly boost its handling capacity in the golden period of two weeks, otherwise speed of infection will overtake speed of capacity building of the country to handle it. Each person has to play his/her role, as COVID-19 cannot be combated without people’s participation.

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East Asia

China is doing. Are you?

Syed Nasir Hassan

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It is certain now that the COVID-19 pandemic has winded the whole globe. What started from just one city, has now shadowed the whole world. As the words penned down the cases increase in the world. However, there is a country whose defiance against the Covid-19 pandemic has been successful.

Despite the fact that the virus’s epicenter was Wuhan, China still managed to control it while the rest of the world still crippling to get hold of the loosen cords of the Covid-19.Thoughthe rest of the world is still in a quarrel with the pandemic, life in China is cautiously returning to normalcy. Even in Wuhan, the city worst hit by the pandemic, infection-free zones are feeling the resurgence of life. All of this has not been achieved overnight for this whole of the country faced excruciating measures including a major blow to its economy. Whole country unified against the pandemic. Purchasing managers index (PMI) which measures the economic activity based on orders company place to suppliers in a country. For the Chinese industry, the index reported 35.7 for the month of February which is the lowest since the index was created. To clarify further, the figures below 50 imply a recession.

China is not only combating Covid-19at home but abroad as well in the form of sending aid even though it has faced a fall in its economy. Italy, Iran, Serbia, Pakistan and many more are on the list that is getting direct assistance from Beijing.

While China is playing a responsible global role in the fight against this pandemic, Washington seems to be gambling with the lives of people of its own. Lately, Washington post revealed that intel reports from January and February clearly warned about the pandemic.  While deaths in the US are nearing to 500, Trump administration seems to be engaged in playing its political cards on the deck of the corona. Blaming China and tightening the sanctions seems to the top priority rather than engaging resources on fighting the pandemic. Recently CNN reported that Trump rolled out 33 false claims in the first two weeks of the month of March regarding the corona crisis. It reported that overall trump made 71 false claims in past two weeks. Out of these 71, 33 were related to coronavirus. This clearly shows the gravity regarding the situation of the pandemic, in the Oval. 

World is face to face with global non-traditional threat while Donald Trump seems to be solidifying his election campaign as cost of blaming China.  Trump calling Covid-19 as China’s virus seems to be true because what the evolving scenario depicts seems that Washington has withdrawn from its global role and China is the only one concerned globally with this pandemic. Despite taking global initiatives for cure, Oval seems to be doing parochial politics over the global pandemic which clearly shows how ignorant is the Trump administration towards the global health crisis. Furthermore, Trump even tried to buy exclusive rights from a medical company in Germany on the antidote of Covid-19 in order to capitalize on the remedy. By tightening sanctions on Tehran and not letting It to do the due course to save lives what oval seems to be doing is bringing more agony to global misery.

As the xenophobic and racist attitude of Washington continues globe is being driven into more dark realms. Furthermore, Oval’s mouthpieces at Fox News and other media outlets have adopted the same manner as their masters are doing and repeatedly have claimed that China should apologize. On the other hand, the world is all praise for China, including the President of European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, on how has China fought the novel virus and has successfully reduced the number of new cases of the disease to zero.

It is high time to appreciate China by putting political difference aside and learn from their experiences as they are the one with most experienced and have successfully battled. Whatever has caused this pandemic China has been successful in curtailing it and countries which are finding themselves paralyzed by this disease shall use assistance from China to overcome this global malady.

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