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Tensions in South Asia: Pakistan test-fires multiple target nuclear missile

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Pakistan on January 24 Tuesday successfully test-fired its second indigenously-developed nuclear-capable missile Ababeel, capable of engaging multiple targets with high precision with a range of 2,200 km, which brings many Indian cities within its striking range. The test firing comes two weeks after the launch of submarine-fired Babar III that Indian side military analysts as usual dubbed as “fake”.

Pakistan military said Pakistan has successfully conducted the flight test of surface-to-surface nuclear-capable missile ‘Ababeel’. Ababeel is capable of delivering multiple warheads using Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) technology, Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said in a statement. “The test flight was aimed at validating various design and technical parameters of the weapon system,” he said. Ghafoor said: “The development of the Ababeel weapon system was aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) environment and has the capability to engage multiple targets with high precision, defeating the enemy’s hostile radars.”

The missile has a maximum range of 1,367 miles, and is capable of carrying multiple warheads using the Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle technology. According to Inter Service Public Relations, the media arm of Pakistan’s military, the test was conducted to validate the weapon’s abilities.

On 8 January, Pakistan conducted its first successful test fire of submarine launched cruise missile Babur III having a range of 450 km. The missile was fired from an underwater, mobile platform and hit its target with precise accuracy.

The Babur weapons system incorporates advanced aerodynamics and avionics that can strike targets both at land and sea with high accuracy, according to ISPR. It has been described as a low flying, terrain hugging missile, which carries certain stealth features and is capable of carrying various types of warheads.

ISPR adds the missile will be a powerful deterrent for the country. Ababeel can be armed with nuclear weapons, and engage multiple targets while overcoming enemy radars.

High-ranking Pakistani government officials praised the flight test as a landmark achievement for the country’s military.

Pakistan’s demonstration follows its nuclear-capable Babur-III launch on Jan. 9, and a number of test-firings conducted by its neighbor India, which have contributed to escalating tensions between the historically hostile nations.

India’s Defense Research and Development organization test-fired its Agni IV ballistic missile on Jan. 4, and launched its guided Pinaka Rocket Mark-II on Jan. 12.

Indian military prowess

This development comes just weeks after the neighbouring rival India ill-focused on Muslim neighbors, successfully test-fired the nuclear-capable Babur-3, its first Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead up to 450 kms. In an apparent reference to India, the release said, “The development of the Ababeel weapon system was aimed at ensuring survivability of Pakistan’s ballistic missiles in the growing regional Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) environment.”

India considers itself the super power of the SA region having first obtained nukes threatening the regional nations, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh. .

Referring to India’s test of its nuclear-capable Agni-IV missile on January 2, Pakistan had also cautioned members of MTCR that introduction of destabilising systems such as “missile defence programmes” and “inter-continental ballistic missiles” in South Asia pose a “risk” to regional stability.

A country’s non-proliferation record is one of the key criteria to join MTCR.

Like India Pakistan has also intensified its efforts to join the exclusive club of countries, controlling exports in missile technology, since India joined the elite grouping last year as its 35th member.

Notably, India was successful in joining MTCR, ahead of Pakistan’s all-weather ally China, whose application is pending since 2004. However, experts say that Pakistan’s controversial record in nuclear proliferation and absence of its patron China inside the club are major obstacles in Islamabad becoming a formal member of MTCR. India has reason to celebrate with semi-explosives all over the country just as it does when it wins a cricket match after fixing it in its favor. .

Pakistan has cautioned members of MTCR that introduction of “destabilising systems” like “missile defence programmes” and “inter-continental ballistic missiles” in South Asia pose a “risk” to regional stability, in an apparent reference to India. Pakistan’s “serious concerns” over the introduction of such systems in South Asia were expressed to a delegation of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a 35-member elite grouping that includes India and controls export in high-end missile technologies, a Foreign Office (FO) statement said. “Pakistan highlighted the risks posed to regional peace and stability due to the introduction of destabilising systems such as missile defence programmes and inter-continental ballistic missiles,” the FO statement said.

India is the only country in South Asia having successfully tested inter-continental ballistic missiles. “Pakistan was, however, committed to avoiding any kind of arms race in South Asia,” it said, adding that Pakistan’s proposal on establishing Strategic Restraint Regime (SRR) in South Asia which covers nuclear and missile restraint remains on the table. “Pakistan believes that progress on this proposal (SRR) through meaningful dialogue can promote peace and stability in the region,” it said.

Concerned about regular rissole tests in India and Pakistan and their seemingly never ending conflict over Kashmir, the United States also weighed down on Pakistan’s test of Babur-3 missile urging it to ‘exercise restraint regarding the use and testing of their nuclear capabilities’. “We continue to urge all states with nuclear weapons to exercise restraint regarding nuclear and missile capability testing and use, and we encourage efforts to promote confidence building and stability with respect to those capabilities,” former US state department spokesperson John Kirby had said.

Highlighting Pakistan’s non-proliferation credentials, Additional Secretary, FO, Tasneem Aslam told the MTCR that Pakistan has always remained in the “forefront to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction” and has “always followed international standards while delivering weapons”. Aslam also briefed the delegation led by Ham Sang-Wook, the current MTCR Chair, about the administrative, legislative and regulatory measures taken by Islamabad for the establishment of a robust command and control system, an effective and comprehensive export control regime, and the steps taken to improve physical security at all levels. “Pakistan’s export control regime is at par with the best international standards and its national control lists encompass the items and technologies controlled by the MTCR,” Aslam said.

Pakistani diplomacy

Pakistani diplomacy is indeed commendable. On the eve of test firing, Pakistan released 218 Indian fishermen who had allegedly strayed into its waters. Despite a thaw in bilateral ties, Pakistan has now released 439 Indian fishermen as a “goodwill gesture” in the last 10 days. The 218 fishermen were freed from Malir jail on instructions from the interior ministry as a goodwill gesture, jail superintendent Hasan Sehto said.

This is the second batch of Indian fishermen released from Pakistan jails since relations between the two countries became tense after the September terror attack on an Indian Army base in Uri for which India has blamed Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed organisation.

On December 25, the Pakistan government had freed 220 Indian fishermen who were in jail for more than a year as goodwill gesture after Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.

The Indian fishermen who were released will be handed over to Indian officials at the Wagah border. He said that around 110 more Indian fishermen remain in Landhi jail in Karachi.

Last March, the Pakistan government had released 87 Indian fishermen who had been languishing in jail in Karachi for the last two and half years.

Fishermen are being increasingly used as useful foreign tension tools by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the troubled Indian Ocean/Arabian waters further complicating the regional tensions being generated by nuclearized South Asian powers India and Pakistan over Kashmir issue.

Pakistan and India frequently arrest each others’ fishermen for violating the territorial boundary. Poor fishermen from both countries routinely find themselves arrested for illegal fishing as there is no clear demarcation of the boundaries between the two countries in the Arabian sea near Sir Creek and lack of technology has made life difficult for the fishermen of both countries.

Last Friday, Pakistan maritime security agency arrested 66 Indian fishermen for illegally fishing in Pakistan’s territorial waters. Fishermen from both countries end up languishing in jails for years even after serving their sentences and their only hope of getting released is through ‘goodwill’ steps.

Pakistan released 220 Indian fishermen in December as a goodwill gesture aimed at easing tensions with its neighbour and pawing way for good neighborly relations to resolve the vexed Kashmir issue in favor of Kashmiris to regain sovereignty from occupation nations.

Sri Lankan atrocities

Meanwhile, India and Sri Lanka with strained relations over Lankan army’s war crimes against minority Tamil community during the Rajapksha era – agreed to release fishermen in each others’ custody, a joint statement said on Monday, a move that is likely to ease tensions between the countries which have held fishermen captive for crossing territorial waters.

After ministerial level talks in Colombo, Sri Lanka reiterated its demand to end the practice of bottom trawling, a technique that involves sweeping the sea bed for fish, and India gave assurances that it would gradually phase it out.

Critics oppose the method because the catch is indiscriminate and could wipe out entire fishing species, making areas unsustainable for fishing.

It was not immediately clear from the statement issued by the two governments and published on the website of the Indian ministry of external affairs how many fishermen were being held by either side, or for how long they had been detained.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that fishermen who cross territorial waters can be warned and fined but not arrested. But India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka do exactly that, clearly violating all sea laws. They expect their respective “protectors” on the UNSC would shield their crimes.

And, they are not entirely wrong! Veto members seems ot enjoy their power to gain fortunes form these countries, among other such “troubled’ nations. No surprise, India is deadly focused on a possible UN veto handle to control the world with its corporate lords that sponsor joint cricket exercises.

While India and Pakistan continue to test missiles to retain the parts of Jammu Kashmir under their respective control, Sri Lanka does not testifiers missiles in the absence of any such Indo-Pakistan problems. However, Sri Lanka is scared of India more than Pakistan with which it does not have any close sea links to fight territorial claims.

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China Aims for Impactful Offshore Defense in the ‘New Era’

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As the rule of thumb goes, it is best to read between the lines and understand the tone of words because there are always two sides to every story. This general approach spawned a perception that the words that are on a piece of official paper not only contain government’s stances but also include strategies to solve a problem, or make a decision. Similarly, China, with a series of White Papers on national defence and international security, engaged in a dialogue and concisely presented its viewpoints on contemporary developments.

The gap between the United States (US) and China is gradually becoming thinner for global economic and regional power shift; the 2019 defence white paper on China’s National Defense in the New Era(10th of this kind) underlined the importance of the careful balance of perceptions, and manage China’s relations to the changes in security order.

China’s response to any change in the security order is traditionally characterised as unique. In the West, China is often seen as responsible for change in the status quo. It is more than about its exceptional stands and the position it holds in the international system, e.g.reform and reshape global governance.

Interestingly, the focus is centred to where China stands in shaping normative security order: align with traditional Chinese cultural values or adopt models and principles of western theories of International Relations. In this respect, the Chinese discourse has been confident about experimenting traditional Chinese models, though the international response has mostly been unsupportive. Moreover, it appears that the outside world is not too much focused on China’s normative influence, but more importantly, interested about what implies minor distinctions in China’s position, posture and policy and why there is a shift.

Through the 2019defence White Paper, China had stressed on the need for balancing the trend of the current international security situation. It also set out core directions and objectives of China’s military diplomacy and strategy by articulating the far-reaching goal of nurturing a new form of defence relations for deterrence, reassurance, and secure overseas interests, which is a breakthrough in some respects against Xi Jinping’s vision for great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. Although China affirms its fundamental principles have not mainly changed but in the security realm,its current posture is inclined to more practical commitments rather ideological.

As signs of the mounting pressure of partnership-based alliance is becoming apparent, China’s narrative is gradually tuning to the fundamental change in the US policy and literature. Indeed, China may have realised now there is a reason to be sceptical of the optimistic forecasts of regional security order as improving. A premise that is largely influenced by China’s resilience and preparedness for offshore defence is its naval and maritime defence to keep regional and global threats at bay.

Indeed, this comes from the understanding that as China is moving closer to the centre of the world stage, the international community expects China to embrace the shift conflict-free. So far, China’s engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) haspartially favoured to check security challenges and likely military alliances.

As Beijing is taking the initiative to repair its relations with neighbours and show gestures that it is willing to cooperate, on the other side, Washington and its allies have resumed campaigns, stating that BRI is to exert China’s influence on weaker nations. Each side has their reasons, but the situation seems partly a result of the current sluggish world order suffering from security dilemma, competition and misgivings about each other.

What is new in Beijing’s Active defence?

The most salient feature in China’s new approach is shying away from military options to mitigate security risks regarding overseas interests. Zhou Bo (Director of the Center for Security Cooperation in the Chinese Ministry of National Defense’s Office for International Military Cooperation)explained the change as natural and argued: “wherever possible, the PLA has been trying to blend China’s national interests with its international responsibilities.” Second, interestingly for the first time through the2019 White Paper, China has conveyed a strong message that the People’s Liberation Army would seek a stronger role to protect ‘China’s Overseas Interests’ that includes Chinese people, organisations and institutions. This way, it has quietly but confidentially made China’s overseas interests fall in the scope of its core national interest.

Traditionally, Beijing has stressed on its offshore facilities such as offshore fish farms, wind farms, drilling rigs, floating rocket launchers in and around its exclusive economic zone and ‘historical claims’ were under its defence umbrella. However, with the change in policy, now China reserves an equal amount of focus on jointly operated commercial ports, maritime assets and Sea lines of communication (SLOC)that are away from its shore.

For those who wonder how China protects its overseas interest, the answer is, it seems China does not to follow the US’s traditional offshore balance model of acquiring too many expensive and permanent military bases and making military alliances, but rather, focus on soft or semi-hard balance by attaining naval/military rights to operate in the host countries’ military facilities. Such a posture not just defends its cause but also justifies defensive use of force when its interests are challenged. In this regard, the PLA Djibouti Support Base, military rights in the pacific islands and military facilities in the South China Sea (SCS) islands and reefs help to escort China’s task groups and could be seen as key features of China’s offshore defence.

The second important feature of China’s offshore facilities explains the economic rationale and commercial potential. If we were to compare overseas military bases and how much China spends, it comes nowhere near to the United States. However, whatever overseas military facilities that China has, they have certain unique features: primarily they serve Chinese business interests, but the US facilities were to assist Overseas Contingency Operations (generally known as funding the wars). Second, they are comparatively inexpensive and cost-effective, whereas the US maintains around 883 expensive overseas military bases and spends about $139.4 billion annually. Nevertheless, China has a lesser overseas combat experience.

Therefore, it is no surprise that China has been keen about reforming and modernising the PLA to build a fortified national defence and a strong military, which required overseas combat expertise.

China’s offshore defence with limited offshore capabilities calls for focus to key geopolitical regions of the world such as East Asia, West Pacific, and the Persian Gulf. As China further intends to extend the training of PLA branches and deploy the aircraft carrier task group for far sea combat exercise, the reforms in China’s military such as suspending commercial responsibilities, informatisation, modernisation of military theory, and organisational structure come in handy. As a result, the role of PLA branches has increased significantly in diversified military tasks such as “monitor China’s territorial air and peripheral air space, carry out alert patrols and combat takeoff”, and to build and develop far seas forces and overseas logistical facilities.

Besides, one could trace about three core approaches that China prefers to follow in safeguarding its sovereignty, security and development interests are self-help, partnership, and military protest.

China’s self-help approach focuses on major security fields such as nuclear, missile defence, outer space, electromagnetic space, and cyberspace for nuclear and conventional deterrence, protect cyber sovereignty and information security. In fact, this approach was pretty much the same throughout. However, now that the scenario has changed with the global military competition in the areas of technological, intelligence developments towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare, China gives serious attention to tactical and strategic deployment of such facilities.

Second, the partnership approach emphasises on active development of China’s military relations and partnerships with Central Asia, Russia and European countries in critical areas of non-traditional security threats such as terrorism and extremism, piracy, cybersecurity and bio-security. Besides, in the hotspots and international passages, China seeks to play a constructive role – meditation for the political settlement, and jointly maintain the security respectively.

Third, the element of military protest are set to follow in concerning areas of information and cultural warfare, Taiwan gaining of foreign influence, ‘Tibet independence’, the creation of ‘East Turkistan’, and in the South China Sea disputes.

For instance, sovereignty, maritime demarcation, and freedom of navigation and overflight over islands and reefs in the South China Sea were concerned the White Paper emphasised about creating favourable conditions by building “infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities … [and] conduct patrols”, at the same time in commercial affairs China stated that it is committed about upholding freedom of navigation and overflight by all countries in accordance with international law and safeguard the security of SLOCs.

To make sure that this offshore adventure remains risk-free and reliable the White Paper set military strategic guideline for PLA to work within “the principles of defence, self-defence and post-strike response, and adopts active defense”, and stressed the strategic defence and offence at operational and tactical levels to contain and win wars.

What worries China?

The White Paper makes some observation that also appeared to be China’s security concerns. China views the situation in Asia-Pacific (and the South China Sea) as “generally stable and improving”; contrary, it views the situation in Europe and the Persian Gulf as disturbing. Besides, at this juncture,China also asserts that despite its attempts to stimulate confidence the military alliances, deployment and intervention were adding complexity to regional security.

If that is the case, in China’s opinion, who is undermining regional security? The White Paper roughly mentions the United States, Republic of Korea, Japan and Australia’s activities resonate as a challenge to regional security. Other areas of China’s concerns also include the UK, France, Germany, Japan and India’s rebalance and optimisation of their military structure. Perhaps a better question might be: is China’s opinion influenced by the Indo-Pacific debate?

Interestingly, by stating that the security situation in Asia-Pacific remains generally stable, the White Paper tried to avoid overlaps with American strategic interests. On the other hand, it referred to the US military and diplomatic efforts as the primary source of intensifying strategic competition, hence causing China to focus on offshore defence.

Meanwhile, either in the offshore balance or defence, the alliances play an essential role. Though China’s seeks military partnership based on non-alliance and non-confrontation, the US policies however, is driving China closer to Russia and SCO members. Further, Beijing also attempted to clarify its principle position as ‘Defensive National Defense Policy’ and never seek hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence. At this stage, to avoid misgivings about its principles and actions, effective communication and cooperation are best for China.

In terms of balancing threat perceptions about China’s rise, the White Paper recognizes the need for Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs) and treaties of good-neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation with the neighbours.

For the moment, the new posture to protect China’s overseas interests translates that the country is gradually heading towards impactful offshore defence. Nevertheless, in the long run, despite the US and other players counteracts, PLA’s international profile would increase significantly regarding China’s offshore facilities and international military cooperation.

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Toward A More Thoughtful Nuclear Diplomacy: An American Strategic Imperative

Prof. Louis René Beres

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“Hope is by nature an expensive commodity, and those who are risking their all on one cast find out what it means only when they are already ruined.” -Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (416 BCE)

Hope is never a viable foreign policy. For the United States and its pertinent allies – when all falsely-comforting optics have been seriously set aside – it will become plain that Kim Jung Un never have had any genuine intentions to “denuclearize.” Accordingly, those earlier expectations spawned by the White House that Pyongyang might somehow destroy its nuclear weapons and infrastructures (aka “complete denuclearization”) will  be finally discarded.

Nonetheless, for US President Donald Trump, this immutable obligation will come as an unpleasant surprise. He had expressly assumed, after all, that the two adversarial leaders “fell in love” upon joining hands in Singapore, and that his relevant international statecraft could be extrapolated directly from the narrowly commercial worlds of real estate bargaining and casino gambling. At that foreseeable stage of diplomatic negotiations, Mr. Trump will have no choice but to “live with” a nuclear North Korea, and the United States will have no choice but to focus on more tangibly meaningful goals.

Most important of all such goals will be the creation of a durable and mutually gainful deterrence regime with Pyongyang.[1]

Because these two already-nuclear adversaries will be starkly asymmetrical in nuclear military terms (that is, in regard to their respective nuclear assets and capabilities), Washington will require a different strategic posture from what successfully obtained during the Cold War era.[2] Back then, seeking a secure war-avoidance regime between roughly symmetrical superpowers – the US and USSR – the accepted security stance was termed “mutual assured destruction” or “MAD.” That once stable stance, however, could never be appropriate today between the US and North Korea.

For just one notable difference, it would not be safe for an American president to assume the long-term decision-making rationality of his counterpart in Pyongyang. Reciprocally, and perhaps even reasonably, Kim Jung Un might not feel much better about assuming Donald Trump’s verifiable and durable reliability. The ensuing uncertainties in Washington and Pyongyang could at some point give rise to more-or-less irresistible incentives to preempt, either by one side or the other.

As so little can ever be predicted about literally unprecedented interactions, these incentives could become authentically “synergistic.” Here, the “whole” of any particular crisis outcome would be cumulatively more damaging than the “mere” additive sum of its recognizable “parts.” In all such sui generis kinds of crisis interaction, the only truly predictable element would be the outcome’s total unpredictability. It follows, inter alia, that both Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un ought to be modest about their prospective control over nuclear events, that is, extremely modest. To be sure, this would not be a convenient time or occasion for any exaggerated national expressions of  pride, arrogance or immodesty.[3]

Not at all.

Knowing all this, how should the American president best proceed? To begin, meeting new and necessary strategic objectives by the United States should no longer center on fine-tuning “marketing” decisions made at Trump White House. Going forward, the critical US security task will necessarily go considerably beyond narrowly childish presidential assessments. Now, it should involve variously multi-layered, and many-sided intellectual challenges.[4]

 Not by any means will this daunting task be manageable by those who would substitute “hope” for analysis.

In essence, success will never lend itself to proper resolution by an American president who remains mired in superficial elements of bargaining, one irremediably intoxicated with showcasing his confused diplomatic priorities of “attitude” over “preparation.”

Going forward, among other things, the United States will need to present itself credibly to North Korea as willing and able to inflict unacceptably damaging retaliations in response to absolutely any conceivable levels of nuclear aggression. Although, earlier, President Trump’s visceral position vis-à-vis Pyongyang had been to threaten Kim Jung Un with “fire and fury” or “total destruction,” this was plainly not a sensible approach to achieving and sustaining long-term nuclear deterrence. However counterintuitive, Mr. Trump ought quickly understand, the credibility of US nuclear deterrent threats could vary inversely with the extent of enemy-threatened destruction.

If the perceived costs or “disutility” of American retaliatory destruction were blatantly disproportionate to the initial aggression, US deterrence could become correspondingly less persuasive.

This unfavorable outcome would obtain whether the American threats were issued sotto voce, or loudly, brashly and unambiguously.

 In any strict scientific assessments of pertinent probabilities, such vital security requirements would represent uncharted waters; there could exist no fully reliable ways of determining what specific US deterrent threats were suitable or optimal. Still, it stands to reason that calibrating American retaliatory threats to the particular level of expected North Korean harms would generally offer a more prudent and promising strategy than simply posturing with various spasmodic, intermittent and across-the-board “MAD-style” threats of “total destruction.”

In this connection, it could sometimes be wiser to signal Pyongyang of Washington’s readiness to wage a “limited nuclear war,” at least in certain specific conflict scenarios.[5]

Largely, this is because of the obviously asymmetrical nuclear capacities between these two prospective enemy states and because Washington must always seek to minimize the chances of any consequential misperceptions or strategic misunderstandings by Pyongyang.

 Trump will also need to avoid exaggerating the strategic benefits of “personal attitude” in crisis-related diplomacy, and to proceed with a conscientiously fashioned analytic template. This would be a posture that could account for both the rationality and intentionality of enemy decision-makers in Pyongyang. In essence, Washington should soon approach the growing North Korean nuclear threat from a more disciplined conceptual perspective. This means factoring into any coherent US nuclear threat assessment (a) the expected rationality or irrationality of all principal decision-makers in Pyongyang; and (b) the foreseeable intentional or unintentional intra-crisis behaviors of these same adversarial decision-makers.

“Theory is a net,” quotes (from the German poet, Novalis) the philosopher of science, Karl Popper,[6] and “only those who cast, can catch.” In all such bewilderingly complex strategic matters, nothing can prove to be more practical than good theory. Always, in science, explanatory generality is the key to specific meanings and predictions. Having readily at hand such comprehensive policy clarifications could help guide US President Donald Trump usefully beyond otherwise vague or simply impromptu appraisals. 

Under no circumstances, this president must be reminded, should such multi-sided crisis possibilities be assessed (implicitly or explicitly) as singular or ad hoc phenomena.

There is more. Going forward, capable American strategic analysts guiding the president should enhance their newly-planned nuclear investigations by first identifying the basic distinctions between (a) intentional or deliberate nuclear war, and (b) unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The derivative risks resulting from these (at least) four different types of possible nuclear conflict are apt to vary considerably. Those American analysts who might remain too completely focused exclusively upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could too-casually underestimate an even more salient nuclear threat to the United States.

This is the increasingly plausible threat of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

One additional conceptual distinction must now be mentioned and inserted into any US analytic scenario “mix.” This is the subtle but still serious difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. To wit, any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be certain determinable forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not necessarily be accidental.

Most critical in this connection are various significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that could lead directly and inexorably to a genuine nuclear conflict. Here, the most blatant example would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that might somehow emerge during the course of any one crisis escalation. Such misjudgments would likely stem from an expectedly mutual search for strategic advantage occurring sometime during a competition in nuclear risk-taking.

 In more expressly strategic parlance, this would suggest a more-or-less  traditional search for “escalation dominance” in extremis atomicum.

 There would then also need to be various related judgments concerning expectations of rationality and irrationality within each affected country’s core decision-making structure. One potential source of unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war could be a failed strategy of “pretended irrationality.” A posturing American president who had too “successfully” convinced enemy counterparts of his own irrationality could thereby spark an otherwise-avoidable enemy preemption.

“Played” in the other direction, an American president who had begun to take very seriously Kim Jung Un’s presumed unpredictability could sometime be frightened into striking first himself. In this alternate case, Washington would become the preempting party that might then claim legality for its allegedly defensive first-strike. In any such “dicey” circumstances, those US strategists charged with fashioning an optimal strategic posture would do well to recall Carl von Clausewitz’s oft-quoted warning (in On War) concerning “friction.”

This “Clausewitzian” property represents the unerringly vital difference between “war on paper” and “war as it actually is.” It’s not a distinction readily determinable by any presidential “attitude.”

It is also possible, amid such chess-like strategic dialectics, that the first “game” might end not with an enemy preemption, but instead with Washington deciding to “preempt the preemption.” Here, US president Trump, sensing the too-great “success” of his own pretended irrationality, might quickly foresee Kim’s consequent insecurity, and then (maybe even quite rationally) decide to “strike first before the enemy strikes first.”

If this game were played in the other direction, it might sometime end not with a US preemption generated by compelling fears of enemy irrationality, but rather with an enemy first-strike intended to preempt a then-anticipated American preemption. In any event, implementing long-term successful nuclear deterrence between Washington and Pyongyang would be in the best interests of both parties. US President Donald Trump now has a distinct opportunity to make calculable progress on the North Korean nuclear problem, but only if he can finally get beyond the patently futile hope of eliciting enemy “denuclearization.”

It follows, plainly and incontestably, that the best use for American nuclear weapons in any ongoing US-North Korea negotiation will be as elements of dissuasion or persuasion, and not as actual weapons of war. In this regard, the key underlying principle goes back even before the advent of any nuclear weapons. Remembering the ancient Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu in his On War (Chapter 3, “Planning Offensives”): “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

For Donald Trump, there can be no more timely or primary principle of diplomacy with Kim Jung Un. Recalling also ancient Greek historian Thucydides, a US presidential knowledge of history ought soon obtain more conspicuous pride of place. Apropos of such an always vital knowledge, basing US national security policies upon vague “hopes” would quickly become a too-grievously “expensive commodity.”


[1] It goes without saying that the benefits of such creation would likely “spill over” into the wider world of strategic planning and and diplomacy, thereby reducing the risks of certain types of war in other parts of the globe. For example, one plausible effect would be a corollary reduction of nuclear risk between Israel and its various enemies in the Middle East. See, by this author, Louis René Beres, https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/427-Trump-North-Korea-Israel-Nuclear-Strategy-Beres-final.pdf

[2] Nonetheless, we are  presently living in a diplomatic world that could accurately be termed “Cold War II.” This second Cold War will inevitably provide the broad structural context for whatever actually transpires between the United States and North Korea. On this particular context, by this author, see:  Louis René Beres,  https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/162-MONOGRAPH-Beres-Israeli-Nuclear-Deterrence-CORRECTED-NEW.pdf

[3] This calls to mind, of course, what the ancient Greek philosophers and playwrights called “hubris.”

[4] One of these increasingly serious challenges will be the prospect of certain third-party hacking interventions, that is, intrusions by another state or sub-state actor (terrorist organization) intended to “catalyze” a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea. Indeed, in some conceivable scenarios, the pertinent hacking aggressor could even be a pure “mercenary” hired by a state and/or terrorist group.

[5] Several of the author’s early books deal very specifically with aspects of a limited nuclear war scenario. See, for example, Louis René Beres, The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (1983); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986).

[6] See Popper’s classic, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959).

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Russia and China: Union or Strategic Uncertainty?

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Russia–China military cooperation is gaining momentum. Since the start of the year, the sides have conducted naval exercises, the first joint patrol of bomber aircraft and a series of joint military competitions. Theatre of war missile defense exercises in the form of computer simulation has also been announced. And the Chinese side will once again take part in the Tsentr strategic command post exercise this year.     

A new agreement on military cooperation that will supersede the long-obsolete 1993 document is currently being drawn up. The agreement will turn many of the events that already take place, including the joint patrol of bomber aircraft, into formalized and ongoing areas of cooperation.

This cooperation is not limited to the Asia-Pacific. In 2017, joint fleet exercises were held on the Baltic Sea. And nothing is preventing Chinese and Russian bomber aircraft from conducting flights over the Atlantic.  

The new military agreement may well include more sensitive elements, even helping China develop its own Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) and integrating Russian and Chinese BMEWS, with mutual automatic data exchange.

There are quite clear and long-term factors behind the accelerated rapprochement of two states in the military sphere. U.S.–China relations are rolling down to the same “destination” where U.S.–Russia relations have been since 2012–2014. Since the causes of the conflict between the United States and China go deeper than the US-Russia discord (Russia is in no position to challenge the United States as a global leader, no matter how much it might want to), there is no hope for a resolution in the near future.

Under these conditions, we cannot but pose an inevitable question about the nature of relations between Russia and China. In other words: Is a military and political union between the two countries possible? The sides have repeatedly denied any intention to create such a union.

What is more, in their official rhetoric both China and Russia pointedly condemn the very idea of military and political alliances, which have long been referred to as “relics of the past.” By rejecting the idea of military and political alliances in principle, both Moscow and Beijing justify their opposition to the expansion of the U.S. system of unions in strategically important regions.   

The parties have repeatedly confirmed that they have no intention of creating a military union. This was reiterated once again during the visit of President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping to Moscow in June 2019. The Joint Statement on Developing Comprehensive Partnership and Strategic Interaction Entering a New Era states that the sides “refuse to establish allied relations, confrontation or non-directedness against third-countries.”

Thus, against the background of the continuing rapprochement of Russia and China, their leaders not only avoid talking about a union but also prefer to enshrine the lack of intention to build such relations in the foreseeable future in official documents.

What is this? How does it accord with the steps that Russia and China are taking in practice?

First of all, it makes sense to consider what an alliance between Russia and China could represent in the current conditions.

This problem is largely viewed through the lens of the experience of the world’s most powerful alliance, namely, NATO. NATO is perceived as an example of a military alliance with the most strictly prescribed conditions. The first part of Article 5 of the NATO Charter is often quoted in this respect: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

However, the mechanism for exercising the right to collective defense is extremely vague. Assistance to the attacked party or parties is to be provided “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”  

The terms of the 1955 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (the Warsaw Pact) drawn up by the Warsaw Treaty Organization were worded in a similar spirit.

From a legal point of view, neither the NATO Charter nor the documents that made up the Warsaw Pact contain any firm guarantees that the respective alliance will use force in response to an attack against one of its members. This notwithstanding, both the USSR and the NATO member countries counted on this and it was a basic fact of the Cold War. It was through the understanding on both sides that even a limited confrontation on the periphery would be fraught with extreme danger that stability was maintained.

Such assuredness could not come from language of the agreements and was based only partly on these documents. The real political and military steps taken by the parties to the agreements were far more important, as they indicated their intentions to fulfill their obligations under the coalition agreements as closely as possible if one of the coalition partners were to come under attack. The agreement outlined the form of the partnership but did not imbue it with any real content.   

There were, and still are, numerous “sleeping” military alliances around the world that contain mutual obligations but which have never been activated in practice. For instance, the 1961 Sino–North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which has very rigid obligations in terms of mutual military assistance, are still in effect. However, China regularly calls the military obligations of the treaty into question and does not take the document seriously at all (until recently, that is).

The United Kingdom and Portugal have enjoyed allied relations for centuries (the first such agreement was signed in the XIV century) that survived countless wars and were used in the interests of the United Kingdom during the XX century. However, in 1961, India forcefully annexed the Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman, and Diu. At the time, the United Kingdom declared that entering into a war with India over this was “out of the question.”     

Real actions prevail over the letter of contracts. Sweden is not a member of NATO, but, from the point of view of practical military planning, it should be treated as such. And it has been since the days of the Cold War. As proof of this, we can point to the nature of joint exercises and exchanges of military delegations; intelligence cooperation; military-technical policies; and Sweden’s participation in NATO missions abroad.     

Russia and China already have a document in place that, in extremely vague terms, describes possible military cooperation in the event of a threat to the security of one of the parties.

We are talking about the 2001 Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Article 9 of the treaty reads as follows:  

“When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.”

Thus, even now, in the event of a military threat to one of the parties, Russia and China must, under the treaty, initiate contact with each other in order to discuss possible joint actions to eliminate the threat. The use of military force is not specifically mentioned, but it is not excluded either. In essence, such obligations do not look any weaker in principle that the norms of the NATO Charter — if we consider the two documents out of context, that is.

The context of the 2001 treaty was fundamentally different. At the time, Russia was in deep crisis as a military power, and it was unclear whether or not the country would be able to maintain any significant aspects of the military potential it had inherited from the Soviet Union. China was taking the first steps towards restoring its own military power. Both countries were relatively weak economically and pursued a policy of integration into the U.S.-led liberal world order. Military cooperation was in its infancy and was primarily intended as a means of insurance against any obvious military aggression on the part of the United States – a scenario that seemed almost impossible back then.  

Given these circumstances, it stands to reason that the terms of the treaty should not be taken too seriously.

Fast forward to today, and the two countries have become stronger both economically and militarily. Both Russia and China are locked in a systemic conflict with the United States, one that penetrates all aspects of bilateral relations and is unlikely to be speedily resolved any time soon. Russia and China have been conducting joint military exercises for almost 15 years now, systematically increasing the interoperability of their troops.

These exercises gradually cover new areas of military activity. The general staffs and security councils of the two countries have established permanent contacts. Contacts at the highest levels between Russia and China are extremely close, and cooperation in all respects is generally consistent with what is to be expected between military allies.       

In combination with the existing 2001 agreement, one can conclude that the union certainly has its place. The soon-to-be-concluded new agreement on military cooperation, as well as a number of other steps, will all contribute to the formation and consolidation of this union.  

What would happen if the United States attacks China? For example, if the United States attacks Chinese forces that are attempting to resolve the issue reuniting Taiwan with the mainland? We cannot predict what would happen. A situation of strategic uncertainty arises, which at the planning stages of a possible U.S. operation against China would force the enemy (i.e. the United States) to prepare for a negative scenario (Russia’s entry into the war).

This raises the threshold of possible U.S. aggression significantly and requires additional forces and equipment to be allocated in order to carry out operations in the Pacific. This would lead to additional costs, which is a sensitive issue for a country living in debt with absolutely no prospects for easing that debt burden. At the same time, moving relations with China to a qualitatively new level in this manner would not require additional large expenses from Russia, as the country’s military planning is already based on the threat of a military conflict with the United States.     

Maintaining relations as a kind of “not fully formed union” has its benefits for both Russia and China. The partnership between the two countries is based on their attitude towards the United States and the world order it dominates. The issues with Russia’s attempts to integrate into this world order started to become apparent in 2007 (with Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech), and its failure became complete and obvious in 2014. For China, this moment came in June 2018, when the economic war with the United States began.   

Outside the framework of the confrontation with the United States and the Western world order, the positions of Russia and China may differ on a number of issues. Russia pursues an independent policy of simultaneously developing relations with all the countries in Asia, including India, Japan and Vietnam, regardless of these countries’ relations with China. Beijing similarly pursues a policy of active development with European countries, regardless of their relations with Russia. One example of this is the 16+1 format, where China is developing relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

The sides value their independence, while Russia, as a smaller economy, avoids taking out large loans from China and giving the latter control over strategically important Russian assets wherever possible.

Does this mean that the two sides cannot act together? Of course not. Neither NATO nor the defunct Warsaw Pact are or were full-fledged alliances of great powers. They were hierarchically built groupings of superpowers and their vassals and half-vassals united only by a common ideology of varying degrees of rigidity.

Old alliances were, in fact, built around common goals (a common enemy) for a specific period of time. And they did not rule out the possibility that the members may have differing positions on secondary policy areas. Take the 1898 Fashoda Incident between Britain and France (who were allies in the First World War) during the Scramble for Africa, for example, which almost led to war. Immediately after the end of the First World War, Great Britain and France entered into a fierce political struggle over the redivision of the Middle East that culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

This is a typical model of relations between major powers, one that has always existed. The relations between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries were a deviation from this, due to the ideological nature of the conflict between the two sides. Such minor contradictions do not rule out the possibility of an unremitting joint struggle in the name of a common goal. As such, a qualitative shift has taken place in Russia–China military and political relations in 2018–2019. The final format of these allied relations may be formalized in the future, or it may never happen at all. Either way, little will change.

From our partner RIAC

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