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

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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.

The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

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

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

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

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

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

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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