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Doklam Plateau Standoff or South China Sea: Chinese Active Defence Strategy turns into Incremental Encroachments

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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As Comprehensive National Power (CNP) of China is growing, its strategy to impose its national will (as perceived by its few key leaders), exercise its power through its behavior in the international arena is undergoing noticeable change. Besides unprecedented economic growth in last few decades, its technological advancement gave significant boost to its soft as well as hard power.

PLA celebrated its 90th anniversary on 01 August 2017, demonstrating its strengths through various parades, provocative statements, military posturing, live fire exercises, psychological warfare, and propaganda. The obvious question is that does it have sufficient confidence to be able to meet the goals set for it, as laid out in China’s Military Strategy document released in early 2015? Is its ambition moving much faster than its capability development (considering the fact that US defense budget is many times more than China)? Has China started giving teeth to its ‘Active Defense Strategy’ by ‘Incremental Encroachment’, based on extending its sovereignty claims on her one sided historical perspective (South and East China Sea, and Doklam Plateau Standoff being cases in point)? Is it that the goal which China had set for itself for 2049, President Xi Jinping wants to achieve by 2021, or in his next term itself? The article attempts to analyse some of these issues.

Chinese Active Defence Strategy turning into Incremental Encroachments

If threats, strategic and military posturing has been going on in South and East China Sea for few years now, Doklam Plateau is a recent incident, involving limited players as compared to South China Sea (SCS). What is significant is that China is increasing its territorial claims based on its own version of history as it suits them. It declares it as its sovereign territory, and resorts to creeping encroachment over a period of time, stopping just short of war, thereafter continue holding it, thereby resulting in expansion of its territory. Recently, after some increase in its CNP, China has started talking about global role, and its last Military strategy and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) documents published in 2015 give adequate indicators of its expansionist design, ascribing an expeditionary role for PLA, which has influenced China in working out its restructuring plans. China is crafting its strategic design for ‘China centric Asia’ through its assertive behavior. China used this strategy in SCS, attempting to convert atolls into islands in a manner that SCS becomes a “Chinese Lake”, ignoring international and legal opposition. China attempted to adopt the same strategy in Doklam Plateau also and expected that it will work as per its design, till it met a road block called “India of 2017”.

Why Doklam Plateau was Chosen for Ingress by China?

The events leading to Doklam Plateau stand-off and India China differences prior to that, have been widely covered by numerous authors, but the possible reason of China selecting it as the point to needle India could be:-

    India and Bhutan boycotted Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation, the Doklam ingress could embarrass both the countries simultaneously.

    Stressing on 1890 Treaty by China ( Signed between China and British India) takes away the logic of Tibet, as a player in dealing with India, thus a subtle message to Dalai Lama that he is not a stake holder in Tibet.

    Test the depth of Indo- Bhutanese security relationship.

    The area being too close to Siliguri Corridor/Chicken’s Neck, India had to be concerned and had to decide whether to intervene or otherwise in India’s own national interest, thereby conveying a message of standing up or not standing up to a challenge from Beijing in future too.

    As the construction activity was in Bhutanese Territory, a strong Indian reaction was not expected.

    In case India takes action, China can proclaim itself as an innocent victim and blame India to be an aggressor.

China was however surprised by an unexpectedly strong Indian reaction, and then it realized that the point chosen was such, where it had strategic and tactical disadvantages in escalating it. China was also surprised that in multiparty democracy like India, all parties are on the same page as far as stand on sovereignty and Doklam Issue is concerned. The end result is that China is extremely disturbed about it, and churning out fresh provocative statements almost on daily basis, launching psychological and propaganda war, war of words, and resorting to every possible means short of war to put pressure on India to withdraw its troops. The continuation of stand-off is exerting domestic pressure and rattling Chinese Government, which has painted larger than life image of its own power to make everyone follow its dictate. The Indian side on the other side has been relatively balanced, but firm in its stance, making very few statements.

Demarcation of Border/ Defining of LAC Inescapable to avoid Face-offs

Out of 14 countries with which China had border issues, it has resolved with 12 except India and Bhutan, With India, China has been delaying settling the border issue on some pretext or the other, and with Bhutan it has been shifting its claim lines many times. Even if resolution of boundary is considered to be a complex problem, the demarcation, delineation and defining of Line of Actual Control (LAC), (which is not a mutually accepted line as of now), is an inescapable necessity. It needs to be understood that with un-demarcated LAC, troops of both sides will patrol as per their own perceptions of LAC; some areas will be common which both sides will patrol to be its own. Every such patrol will be called as intrusion by the other side, hence such face-offs will continue till it’s demarcated, and the identification of its demarcation is made known to troops manning the borders. The incident of Chinese attempted intrusion on August 15, foiled by Indian troops leading to a short face-off in Ladakh, is one such common incident. Similarly the faceoff in Pongong Tso ( A lake which extends in India as well as China), is a result of non demarcation of boundary between both making resolution of the problem more complex.

Although China has resorted to adopting Sun Tzu principle of ‘winning without fighting’, or make India withdraw its troops without fighting in this case, through psychological and propaganda war, provocative statements, military posturing, exercises, cyber power, but India as a country, with strong leadership and operationally experienced military, is well placed to resist any action, without making much noise and maintaining its balance. Military threat or provocative statements cannot be an answer to this problem. The history can be interpreted by both sides to suit their claims, threat to revise policies can be from both sides (if China can talk about rethinking Sikkim/Kashmir policy/ or intervening in Nepal triangle,India can also talk about rethinking Tibet/One China policy or establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan). The militaries have grown on both sides, the escalation dynamics of conflict will block growth and economic dreams of both countries, and the reality is that none can deter another.The mistrust between India and China is fueled by irresponsible so called Chinese media, publishing articles with vituperative rhetoric, Think-tanks and some ‘so called specialists’ reading the events beyond unimaginable limits (some Chinese media article talking of “Countdown to clash with India is on”, although Chinese establishment is distancing itself from such statement) has further made the resolution of Doklam Plateau stand-off difficult. Chinese efforts to establish bilateral talks with Bhutan have not materialized. Their efforts to involve Nepal have also resulted in response from their Deputy Prime Minister expressing unwillingness to take sides. Japanese Ambassador in New Delhi also said that there should be no attempt to change status quo on the ground by force, has also irked China, which finds no one buying its provocative narrative . Despite the fact that both countries don’t want a war, they would not like to appear weak in resolution process.

Doklam: The Way Ahead

When NSA Ajit Doval went to China to attend NSAs meeting of BRICS on 27and 28 July 2017, any expectations for commencement of meaningful diplomatic engagement was being unrealistic. Any war-game between Chinese and Indian Forces, if conducted by professionals will conclude that a land border conflict will end up in a stalemate, which is disastrous for the image of President Xi Jinping especially in an election year, besides being economically damaging for both countries. In a border standoff of this kind, neither side wants to appear weak; hence both seem to be reinforcing troops along LAC in Doklam Plateau and other areas, as a precautionary measure. It is therefore necessary that the two countries find a peaceful solution, with a face-saving gesture to ease tension. To resolve the current face-off:-

    Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetoric. In case either side doesn’t want to be appearing compromising to its people, Track2/informal talks can begin as a face saving measure, followed by formal talks. Any precondition laid down by either side, is likely to be resented, and prolong the stand-off. Even US is of the view that both sides should talk and resolve the matter.

    Chinese should stop construction of road immediately, honoring sovereignty of Bhutan and Trilateral agreement of 2012.

    Once status quo of pre-standoff period is achieved, military of both sides should pull back to pre standoff positions simultaneously.

    As a long term measure both China and India should expedite demarcation of LAC on ground, and disseminate it up to the level of troops manning the borders to prevent future face-offs, which is avoidable by cooperative political intent followed by intense diplomatic efforts.

South China Sea: Is Chinese Strategy same as Doklam?

The Similarity in Strategy in both Scenarios

 An analysis of similarity in strategy of these two scenarios is relevant for India, as it has stakes in both. The Chinese strategy as described above in case of Doklam Plateau had been earlier tested in South China Sea, with some differences.This is evident from the fact that China on the pretext of sovereignty claims based on its own interpretation of historical maritime boundaries has carried out incremental encroachment into South China Sea, as part of her ‘Active Defence Policy’ which is the same pretext of its ingress in Doklam. The Chinese Foreign Minister had said “The islands in the South China Sea (SCS) have been China’s territory since ancient times, and China has the right to safeguard its territorial sovereignty”. It indirectly means that the world must accept whatever China claims as having been part of Qing dynasty or any other historical period as per its convenience, as sovereign territory of China. While in Doklam it is the Anglo-Chinese Treaty of 1890 wherein neither Tibet nor Sikkim nor Bhutan were consulted or taken into confidence. India along with other users of SCS has stakes in SCS face-off to prevent Chinese future  interference in ‘Freedom of Navigation’ on account of major chunk of shipping trade passing through it, freedom of flight, restriction in offshore drilling deals for oil with Vietnam, and use of other global commons in international waters. 

The Differences in Both Situations

SCS is a global issue with involvement of superpower US along with other users. China’s strategic competition with US in Asia is a reality, and it is increasingly encroaching into US strategic space and influence, which includes SCS. Military posturing, tough statements and other actions of US, have not helped them much in losing ground, as China has not halted its activities. While the infrastructure development by China in SCS being dual use (civil as well as military), keeps progressing, it is viewed as usurping global commons by US and other users of SCS, and strategic encroachment by regional claimants. The strategic and military posturing and occasional hard statements on the claim of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ by US is considered as ‘Disturbance to regional peace’ by China. In comparison India’s timely intervention on behalf of Bhutan has saved the situation for Bhutan.

China’s assertive actions in SCS have inadvertently distanced her from many old friends having stakes there. The issue of their sovereignty claim over Freedom of navigation claim of others creates suspicion about free flow of global trade. Although China has not obstructed any trade shipping so far, but in future if SCS is allowed to become China’s lake, it may lay down some rules of business inconvenient to other users of SCS and global commons. In case it declares SCS as her ADIZ in future, the freedom of flights over international waters will get affected adversely.  With China’s claim that US is destabilizing/militarizing SCS, hence it may appear to be as China-US issue, but rest of the world including India, whose trade is passing through this crucial global SLOC may not like to see SCS being converted into China’s lake. While China will like to claim her freedom of navigation elsewhere, but her making it a sovereignty issue in SCS may not let it remain a zone of peace. The construction of airstrips, deployment of missiles, radars and other logistics facilities by China are an attempt to convert an ‘Atoll’ in SCS into an ‘Island’. This will help in converting the SCS into “China’s Lake” by using provisions of same UNCLOS, which it has been ignoring. These are not happy signs for other claimant countries and other regional users of SCS including ASEAN, who do not have the strength to stand up against China. They look upon US to fulfill its erstwhile role of ‘Net Security Provider’, in conjunction with other global users of SCS like Japan, India and Australia, without openly opposing China, and extracting best concessions from all.

China’s Blatant Refusal to Accept International Court of Arbitration Verdict

While China did not accept nor paid any heed to the International Court of Arbitration Verdict on the case taken up by Philippines, and has continued to build infrastructure on atolls to convert them into islands, but it definitely conveyed the global message that SCS cannot be treated as Chinese lake, as global SLOC and trade is affected by it.

    It conveyed that Chinese claim of it being her sovereign territory is not being considered convincing. It also gave a message that similar adventurism to claim any global choke-point anywhere in the world, will also invite sharp criticism.

    Increased military movement and exercises in SCS by China as well as US and its allies/friendly Navies is indicative of military posturing and War of words. While US, India and Japan maintain that Malabar exercises are not directed towards any other country, but analysts can read some subtle messages in it. As per Defence Update by US on July 22, 2017, it is looking at capacity building of Regional forces like India, Japan and Australia to check expeditionary and expansionist adventures of China.

    For the time being no recognizable change in South China Sea is visualised. The military posturing and show of force by US and China will continue, along with diplomatic efforts to pull other affected countries into their strategic orbit. The other claimant countries can hope for better concessions from both sides as Vietnam was visited by erstwhile President Obama, as well as Xi Jinping with unprecedented offers once the SCS row heated up. The recent attempts of China trying to negotiate Doklam Issue with Bhutan directly, or trying to get Nepal into this issue is a case in point for similar strategy.

    It certainly divides ASEAN with each country trying to get the best out of the existing situation and from both the superpowers.

    China’s has been luring claimant countries to bilaterally resolve SCS dispute is unlikely to work. It attempted the same by putting out in the media that Bhutan had not objected to Chinese presence in Doklam. This has been adequately refuted by the Bhutanese Foreign Minister in his meeting with the Indian Foreign Minister on the sidelines of the BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers held meeting recently in Kathmandu. The regional Daclaration of Conduct(DoC) and Code of Conduct (CoC) will not be able to check China’s unilateralism. The freedom in use of global commons will have to be contested by regional and other affected countries, including global powers.

    The verdict also gave a message that each contending side reads history, as it suits her in claiming territories, hence historical claims cannot be the overarching basis of territorial resolutions.

    China is neither the first or last country in not implementing international arbitration verdict (in absence of any enforcement mechanism), but the verdict gave the global mood, with some international pressure on Chinese hierarchy. India on the other hand had acted maturely as a responsible nation, by accepting a similar verdict, which was passed to resolve territorial water dispute with Bangladesh last year by the PCA.

Unfortunately, all global and regional players affected have been watching, while China has been conveniently progressing construction. Even the regional claimant countries and ASEAN seem to be growing softer on this issue. The strategic and military posturing and isolated provocative/threatening statements by US and voices of resentment by others will not help. A hard stand by US and other global players will have to be taken to stop further construction and creeping encroachment in SCS as has been done in case of Doklam. It therefore needs to be seen that Doklam Issue and its resolution is a test case in checking Chinese hegemony or otherwise. The resolution methodology of Doklam Issue may bring some lessons for SCS also.  A peaceful India- China border as well as South China Sea is essential for India, China and everyone’s growth and stability in Indo- Pacific region.

Commonality in the Way Ahead in Doklam and SCS

  • China must stop further construction.
  • China has to limit its imagination of sovereignty based on one sided historical claims. It needs to respect the ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘Core National Interests’ of other countries as well, otherwise its arrogance can make other countries take harder stands in future.
  • Diplomatic engagement without preconditions will have to commence immediately setting aside hard stands, war of words, and rhetoric’s.
  • The theory of deterrence to mould strategic choices will not work. If Vietnam could stand up to China and US, and both are finding problems in dealing with North Korea, then deterring India is unrealistic imagination.
  • Military posturing to be controlled by contesting sides.
  • International laws, Conventions, Treaties, Agreements need to be respected by all.
  • The diplomatic exercise to resolve these should continue simultaneously with commercial engagements. Talks are a must for resolving differences in perceptions.

An Infantry General with 40 years of Defence experience at national and international level. Held various key appointments in Army and UN during military carrier. Awarded twice by President of India, and twice by UN, and CEE excellence award for Nation building by Governor of Haryana. Retired from active Army Service in 2014, presently the Chief Instructor of all Courses for military officers in United Service Institute of India.

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Chinese Game: U.S. Losing Asia and Africa

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As the US sanction pressure on Russia intensifies, the US economic and political competition with their most important economic partner, China, is noticeably getting more fierce. Simultaneously, Washington has been exchanging direct and indirect economic strikes with Turkey and the EU. (In the case of the European Union, an exchange of blows occurs in connection with Washington’s threat to punish European companies that are set to ignore the US ban on cooperation with Iran.)

Two Lines of Confrontation

The aggravation of the US-Chinese rivalry proceeds along two lines: first, the rates in the “tariff war” between the two countries are rising; second, the struggle between Washington and Beijing for lucrative markets in Asia and Africa is intensifying. Both these processes are interrelated, but in the current circumstances the main focus of the second line  is the fight for markets.

In the first place, I would like to talk briefly about the “tariff war” between the US and China as an important element in relations between the two countries, without which it is impossible to understand all the subtleties of competition between these two countries in Asia and Africa. As is known, the “tariff war” worsened after the US president first introduced a 25-percent duty on the import of 818 products from China, the total value of which was estimated at 34 billion dollars a year. Then came the even more threatening statement of the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer: “On July 18, the President instructed me to compile the list of Chinese goods worth 200 billion dollars for imposing additional duties of 10 percent … The President ordered me to consider an increase in the proposed level from 10 to 25 percent “. After China responded with a 25-percent duty on 34 billion dollars’ worth of American goods, Trump did not rule out the possibility of raising duties on all Chinese imports in the US. The total value of Chinese commodities in the US is currently estimated at about $ 500 billion.

Simultaneously, the United States has loudly announced its intention to compete with China in influencing countries that participate in the Chinese transport project “One Belt, One Road”, which is designed to revive the Great Silk Road, which ran throughout the whole of Eurasia in the Middle Ages. As he set off for  the Regional Cooperation Forum in Singapore in July this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his intention to counteract China’s so-called “silk” influence. According to Pompeo’s plans, the appropriate measures should cost the US budget a trifling $ 113 million against China’s hundreds of billions which is exactly the amount Beijing is planning to allocate for the implementation of “One Belt, One Road” project.

Influence at Low Cost

If the United States intends to squeeze China out of Asia at such miniscule costs, they obviously underestimate the rival. At least two factors work for Beijing: first of all, China is one of the region’s oldest “aborigines”; besides, Washington, waging a “tariff” war against Beijing, can thus deprive itself of a part of the Chinese oil market, making China even more attractive for oil traders from Iran and Russia – the key players in the project “One Belt, One Road”.

The American Oil Price news site has described the impact of the US-China “tariff war” on the Asian oil players as follows: “China has threatened to impose a 25- percent import tariff on crude oil and oil products from the United States. If this threat comes into effect, crude oil from the US can become non-competitive in terms of value. Such a tariff from China will not only reduce the income of oil exporters from the US, forcing them to look for new markets … it can become a source of additional revenues for the OPEC countries. And the OPEC countries are the suppliers that the US has pushed into the background in recent years”, says Oil Price researcher Irina Slav. oilprice.com

Considering that for the American oil industry China is the largest export market after Canada, it becomes clear that this matter is fraught with so huge losses, billions in fact, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with his 113 million dollars sounds ridiculous.

Psychological Error

Judging by Pompeo’s statements, Americans are committing a psychological mistake in Asia. This is the mistake that led to China pushing the US to the sidelines in many countries of Africa. The matter is that the US is trying to replace genuine assistance by self-praise, flaunting any of its measures as valuable and corruption-free, alleging that whatever it does is a good example to follow. “The world knows that with American companies you get what you see. Honest contracts, honest conditions, there is no need for behind-the-scenes machinations. Decency in business is the pillar of our economic vision in the Indo-Pacific Region”, the Secretary of State told CNN.

Meanwhile, South-East Asian nations know only too well about the US policy in this region. Alas, it is simply impossible to describe this policy as ever humanistic, open and devoid of corruption – it would mean contradicting the historical truth. The brutal war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, the support of the dictatorial and corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (1965-1986), the “secret wars” of the CIA in Laos and Cambodia during military operations in Vietnam – the memory of all these is still fresh in the region. All the countries affected (Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia) are members of ASEAN. In such circumstances, the self-praising speeches by American officials at ASEAN forums trigger a skeptical attitude, to say the least. And although many ASEAN countries may feel wary of China and are unlikely to have cloudless relations with Beijing in the near future, the US’ psychologically wrong tactics have already antagonized many of these states pushing them toward Russia and China. This is proved by the recent attempts by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte to diversify the traditionally pro-American policy of his country, enlisting the support of Russia and even China, a long-term rival. Duterte’s historic visit to China in 2016 showed who had actually won the fight for the “heart and mind” of the Philippine leader – a struggle in which the United States initially had very strong positions. aljazeera.com

The anti-Duterte media campaign, which was launched in the US and the EU soon afterwards, has no direct consequences so far. American accusations against Duterte in connection with an excessively fierce fight against the drug mafia sounded hypocritical amid the “war on drugs” which was imposed by the United States on Mexico and Colombia in the 2000s and in which at least 45,000 people were killed.

Lost In Asia – Will Lose In Africa

As far as Africa is concerned, in recent years China has outplayed not only the Americans, but the seemingly familiar with the local specifics former colonial masters of this region – the French and the British.

After the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, the Chinese side found the right approach to its African partners – without instruction, without interference in internal affairs, with investment proposals supported by the banking sector of the Middle Kingdom. The first ministerial meeting of FOCAC attracted representatives of 44 countries from 53 states of the African continent. Fairly soon, China made these forums pan-African by removing Taiwan. Until the middle of the 2000s Taiwan had its diplomatic missions in several African countries (including Chad and Senegal), which excluded the possibility of communication between these countries and the PRC.

Orientation – Bandung

The African-Chinese “union of values” began with the Bandung Conference of 1955, during which 29 countries of Asia and Africa proclaimed the principles of non-interference, respect for each other’s sovereignty and comprehensive economic cooperation. The figures of the Indian Jewaharlal Nehru, the Egyptian Gamal-Abdel Nasser and the Chinese Zhou Enlai, which live in the memory of many in connection with their participation in the Bandung Conference, have ‘sanctified’ a new approach to China’s cooperation with Africa. All three became heroes in their countries, and the Chinese leadership, headed by the then Secretary-General Hu Jintao, was not mistaken in the choice of a model: in the coming years China will most likely gain an economic foothold in Angola, South Africa and the Congo-Brazzaville state. According to the long-term president of this country Denis Sassou Nguesso, “Africans for the first time do not expect foul play from people with a different skin color who build their roads and power lines.” (Source: the book by French journalists Serge Michel, Michel Beuret “Cinafrica, Pechino qalla conquista del continente nero” – “Beijing in the process of conquering the black continent.” Milano, 2009, p. 23)

At present, Africa’s trade with China amounts to 220 billion dollars, with the US – 37 billion. Foreign direct investment from China to African countries is estimated at $ 50 billion, although many experts claim that the real figure is higher: too much infrastructure, new plants and modern services have appeared in Africa for such “modest” Chinese money. (Source: book by French journalists Serge Michel, Michel Beuret “Cinafrica, Pechino qalla conquista del continente nero” – “Beijing in the process of conquering the black continent.” Milano, 2009, p. 22).

It should be noted that Africa did its best to repay all their benefactors with loyalty: together with China, leaders of the African Union reacted negatively to the armed, violent overthrow of the leader of the African Union – Libyan Muammar Gaddafi. China knows that it can count on the majority of African votes in the UN. But the main thing is gratitude, which in the case of Africa-China relations is absolutely sincere.

First published in our partner International Affairs

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The Uyghur militant threat: China cracks down and mulls policy changes

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China, responding to United Nations criticism, academic and media reports, and an embarrassing court case in Kazakhstan, has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic north-western province of Xinjiang in what it asserts is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times charged in its Chinese and English editions that the criticism and reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang, China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uyghur and ethnic minority Central Asian Muslim communities.

The crackdown, involving introduction of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment and prevent blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15  percent of its proven oil reserves, 22  per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal, has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia in contradiction to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.

The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,’” the paper said.

Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded last week in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.

The Global Times admitted that the Chinese effort to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”

China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps but the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said last week that it had credible reports that one million Uyghurs, were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”

The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US Congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”

Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort, partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps, to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.

Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.

Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was ‘following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”

Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.

China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.

Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities.

Said Middle East scholar Randa Slim discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib: “You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.

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Sino-American Strategic Rivalry

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From a strategy point of view, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are similar in least in one respect: Sun Tzu’s idea of moving swiftly to overcome resistance is similar to the one endorsed by Clausewitz and practiced by Napoleon.

The modern day example can be traced to the 2003 “shock and awe” campaign by the U.S. in Iraq and the Iraqi reliance on a strategy similar to Russian defense against Napoleon’s attack in his Russian Campaign of 1812. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the beginning of the end of his ambition. He won many battles but lost the war.

And America is suffering from the same fate as the struggle for a new Iraqi political identity is not going to go the American way. The same can be said about Afghanistan.

This is precisely why discussions on war must be assessed from a geopolitical point of view as Clausewitz has noted that “war is an extension of politics”. And the reverse is also true, one may add.

A quick tour of modern history reveals the true winners and losers of wars, by comparing a country’s power before and after a war. The United Kingdom and Germany were both losers of the two World Wars. And the difference of losses between them is a matter of degree.

But the U.K. suffered greater and irreversible losses than Germany.  The British ceded its number one geopolitical leadership position in the world to the United States. But Germany has been able to regain its position as Europe’s great economic and political power, while the prospects of the U.K. taking back the world leadership position from the U.S. are next to none.

America has been a geopolitical winner overall since the two World Wars. But its power has been in relative decline. It has failed to advance its power after the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria. It has failed so far to advance the momentum created by the Arab Spring as it has since become the Arab Winter, or to make much headway in Latin America, in Ukraine, and in Africa.

America’s key failures in the past decade are failures in being able to offer tangible economic benefits to target countries while expanding its military involvements. The country can win military battles because of its overwhelming fire power but has not been successful in its after-war “nation building” efforts.

Despite China’s numerous shortcomings, many developing countries quietly wish they could become a mini-China economically. They want to live better with more consumption but they probably want to do it by being able to build up their country’s infrastructure and an industrial base.

America’s recent announcement that it will invest $113 million in technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific as part of a new strategy to deepen ties with the region has received jaw-dropping reception – sarcastically speaking.

As an example, a survey of North American light rail projects shows that costs of most LRT systems range from $15 million to over $100 million per mile. So how far $113 million or even $1.13 billion can go even if one is to factor in some discounts if projects are implemented in lower cost Indo-Pacific countries? Remember, $113 million is for countries as in plural!

This pales in comparison to China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) that ranges between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. BRI is not without its problems and critics. Concerns have been raised about increases in some participating countries’ level of national debt as a result of massive infrastructure building. But because of the scale of the initiative, even if it could only succeed at the lowest end of the range, would offer some real and substantial benefits to countries that can benefit from it.

While freedom and democracy are ideals that have universal support in the abstract – the key words here are “in the abstract” – successful nation-building efforts are realized in the nitty-gritty of people’s everyday economic well-being. This is particularly true among developing countries.

Cheap Chinese smart phones have enabled Africans to get market information to transact with one another more beneficially, to acquire news and information, to lower transaction costs through mobile payments. Inexpensive Chinese motor bikes have become life-saving vehicles for rural populations carrying goods to markets as well as the sick to clinics or hospitals many miles away that they previously could not do.

While the U.S. is no doubt keen on promoting democracy, it is the Chinese that provide affordable smart phones to the masses that allow the spread of information.

While some of the best and the brightest, the elites, the upper middle class in developing countries may desire to have an opportunity to earn an Ivey League degree, to emigrate to the U.S. for better opportunities, to acquire an American passport as an insurance policy, it’s the Chinese that are doing the grunt work of building and training local personnel to conduct trains, to train electrical power linemen to install and repair of overhead or underground power lines as well as to maintain and repair of other electrical and hydro-electrical subsystems and components.

Regardless of how one’s view of China’s strategic intents in its international involvements, the strategies between the U.S. and China cannot be more different. China builds and America destroys.

But many countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region are taking advantage of the rivalry between these two powers to extract the best deals for themselves and you can’t blame them. Economically they want to cooperate with China but militarily they want to get a free ride from the U.S. and the U.S. does not mind that as long as it falls within America’s China Containment strategy.

And time will tell which strategy will work better – economic cooperation or military encirclement?

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