How to draw the line between the recent and still unsettled EU/EURO crisis and Asia’s success story? Well, it might be easier than it seems: Neither Europe nor Asia has any alternative. The difference is that Europe well knows there is no alternative – and therefore is multilateral. Asia thinks it has an alternative – and therefore is strikingly bilateral, while stubbornly residing enveloped in economic egoisms. No wonder that Europe is/will be able to manage its decline, while Asia is (still) unable to capitalize its successes.
Asia clearly does not accept any more the lead of the post-industrial and post-Christian Europe, but is not ready for the post-West world.
Following the famous saying allegedly spelled by Kissinger: “Europe? Give me a name and a phone number!” (when – back in early 1970s – urged by President Nixon to inform Europeans on the particular US policy action), the author is trying to examine how close is Asia to have its own telephone number.
Another fallacy is that the German reunification can be just copied. 15 days at any German institute of political science and one becomes expert of reunification. Yes, Germany is a success story since the neighbors were extremely forgiving. And that was enhanced by the overall pan-continental commitment to multilateralism – by both institutions and instruments. Europe of German re-unification was the most multilateralised region of the world. Asia today is extremely bilateral – not far from the constellations at the time of Hiroshima or Korean War of 1950s. No multilateralism – no denuclearisation; no denuclearisation – no reunification; no reunification – no overall cross-continental tranquilization of relations; no tranquility – no Asia’s sustainable success.
Why multilateralism matters? Author tries to answer it …
By contrasting and comparing genesis of multilateral security structures in Europe with those currently existing in Asia, and by listing some of the most pressing security challenges in Asia, this policy paper offers several policy incentives why the largest world’s continent must consider creation of the comprehensive pan-Asian institution. Prevailing security structures in Asia are bilateral and mostly asymmetric while Europe enjoys multilateral, balanced and symmetric setups (American and African continents too). Author goes as far as to claim that irrespective to the impressive economic growth, no Asian century will emerge without creation of such an institution.
For over a decade, many of the relevant academic journals are full of articles prophesizing the 21st as the Asian century. The argument is usually based on the impressive economic growth, increased production and trade volumes as well as the booming foreign currency reserves and exports of many populous Asian nations, with nearly 1/3 of total world population inhabiting just two countries of the largest world’s continent. However, history serves as a powerful reminder by warning us that economically or/and demographically mighty gravity centers tend to expand into their peripheries, especially when the periphery is weaker by either category. It means that any absolute or relative shift in economic and demographic strength of one subject of international relations will inevitably put additional stress on the existing power equilibriums and constellations that support this balance in the particular theater of implicit or explicit structure.
Lessons of the Past
Thus, what is the state of art of Asia’s security structures? What is the existing capacity of preventive diplomacy and what instruments are at disposal when it comes to early warning/ prevention, fact-finding, exchange mechanisms, reconciliation, capacity and confidence– building measures in the Asian theater?
While all other major theaters do have the pan-continental settings in place already for many decades, such as the Organization of American States – OAS (American continent), African Union – AU (Africa), Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – OSCE (Europe), the state-of-arts of the largest world’s continent is rather different. What becomes apparent, nearly at the first glance, is the absence of any pan-Asian security/ multilateral structure. Prevailing security structures are bilateral and mostly asymmetric. They range from the clearly defined and enduring non-aggression security treaties, through less formal arrangements, up to the Ad hoc cooperation accords on specific issues. The presence of the multilateral regional settings is limited to a very few spots in the largest continent, and even then, they are rarely mandated with security issues in their declared scope of work. Another striking feature is that most of the existing bilateral structures have an Asian state on one side, and either peripheral or external protégé country on the other side which makes them nearly per definition asymmetric. The examples are numerous: the US–Japan, the US– S. Korea, the US–Singapore, Russia–India, Australia–East Timor, Russia–North Korea, Japan –Malaysia, China–Pakistan, the US–Pakistan, China–Cambodia, the US–Saudi Arabia, Russia –Iran, China–Burma, India–Maldives, Iran–Syria, N. Korea–Pakistan, etc.
Indeed, Asia today resonates a mixed echo of the European past. It combines features of the pre-Napoleonic, post-Napoleonic and the League-of-Nations Europe. What are the useful lessons from the European past? Well, there are a few, for sure. Bismarck accommodated the exponential economic, demographic and military growth as well as the territorial expansion of Prussia by skillfully architecturing and calibrating the complex networks of bilateral security arrangements of 19th century Europe. Like Asia today, it was not an institutionalized security structure of Europe, but a talented leadership exercising restraint and wisdom in combination with the quick assertiveness and fast military absorptions, concluded by the lasting endurance. However, as soon as the new Kaiser removed the Iron Chancellor (Bismarck), the provincial and backward–minded, insecure and militant Prussian establishment contested (by their own interpretations of the German’s machtpolitik and weltpolitik policies) Europe and the world in two devastating world wars. That, as well as Hitler’s establishment afterwards, simply did not know what to do with a powerful Germany.
The aspirations and constellations of some of Asia’s powers today remind us also of the pre-Napoleonic Europe, in which a unified, universalistic block of the Holy Roman Empire was contested by the impatient challengers of the status quo. Such serious centripetal and centrifugal oscillations of Europe were not without grave deviations: as much as Cardinal Richelieu’s and Jacobin’s France successfully emancipated itself, the Napoleon III and pre-WWII France encircled, isolated itself, implicitly laying the foundation for the German attack.
Finally, the existing Asian regional settings also resemble the picture of the post-Napoleonic Europe: first and foremost, of Europe between the Vienna Congress of 1815 and the revolutionary year of 1848. At any rate, let us take a quick look at the most relevant regional settings in Asia.
By far, the largest Asian participation is with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation – APEC, an organization engulfing both sides of the Pacific Rim. Nevertheless, this is a forum for member economies not of sovereign nations, a sort of a prep-com or waiting room for the World Trade Organization – WTO. To use the words of one senior Singapore diplomat who recently told me in Geneva the following: “what is your option here? …to sign the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), side up with the US, login to FaceBook, and keep shopping on the internet happily ever after…”
Two other crosscutting settings, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – OIC and Non-Aligned Movement – NAM, the first with and the second without a permanent secretariat, represent the well-established political multilateral bodies. However, they are inadequate forums as neither of the two is strictly mandated with security issues. Although both trans-continental entities do have large memberships being the 2nd and 3rd largest multilateral systems, right after the UN, neither covers the entire Asian political landscape – having important Asian countries outside the system or opposing it.
Further on, one should mention the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization – KEDO (Nuclear) and the Iran-related Contact (Quartet/P-5+1) Group. In both cases, the issues dealt with are indeed security related, but they are more an asymmetric approach to deter and contain a single country by the larger front of peripheral states that are opposing a particular security policy, in this case, of North Korea and of Iran. Same was with the short-lived SEATO Pact – a defense treaty organization for SEA which was essentially dissolved as soon as the imminent threat from communism was slowed down and successfully contained within the French Indochina.
Confidence building – an attempt
If some of the settings are reminiscent of the pre-Napoleonic Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – SCO and Cooperation Council for the Arab states of the Gulf – GCC remind us of the post-Napoleonic Europe and its Alliance of the Eastern Conservative courts (of Metternich). Both arrangements were created on a pretext of a common external ideological and geopolitical threat, on a shared status quo security consideration. Asymmetric GCC was an externally induced setting by which an American key Middle East ally Saudi Arabia gathered the grouping of the Arabian Peninsula monarchies. It has served a dual purpose; originally, to contain the leftist Nasseristic pan-Arabism which was introducing a republican type of egalitarian government in the Middle Eastern theater. It was also – after the 1979 revolution – an instrument to counter-balance the Iranian influence in the Gulf and wider Middle East. The response to the spring 2011-13 turmoil in the Middle East, including the deployment of the Saudi troops in Bahrain, and including the analysis of the role of influential Qatar-based and GCC-backed Al Jazeera TV network is the best proof of the very nature of the GCC mandate.
The SCO is internally induced and more symmetric setting. Essentially, it came into existence through a strategic Sino-Russian rapprochement , based, for the first time in modern history, on parity, to deter external aspirants (the US, Japan, Korea, India, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and to keep the resources, territory, present socio-economic cultural and political regime in the Central Asia, Tibet heights and the Xinjiang Uighur province in line.
The next to consider is the Indian sub-continent’s grouping, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – SAARC. This organization has a well-established mandate, well staffed and versed Secretariat. However, the Organization is strikingly reminiscent of the League of Nations. The League is remembered as an altruistic setup which repeatedly failed to adequately respond to the security quests of its members as well as to the challenges and pressures of parties that were kept out of the system (e.g. Russia until well into the 1930s and the US remaining completely outside the system, and in the case of the SAARC surrounding; China, Saudi Arabia and the US). The SAARC is practically a hostage of mega confrontation of its two largest members, both confirmed nuclear powers; India and Pakistan. These two challenge each other geopolitically and ideologically. Existence of one is a negation of the existence of the other; the religiously determined nationhood of Pakistan is a negation of multiethnic India and vice verse. Additionally, the SAARC although internally induced is an asymmetric organization. It is not only the size of India, but also its position: centrality of that country makes SAARC practically impossible to operate in any field without the direct consent of India, be it commerce, communication, politics or security.
For a serious advancement of multilateralism, mutual trust, a will to compromise and achieve a common denominator through active co-existence is the key. It is hard to build a common course of action around the disproportionately big and centrally positioned member which would escape the interpretation as containment by the big or assertiveness of its center by the smaller, peripheral members.
Multivector Foreign Policy
Finally, there is an ASEAN – a grouping of 10 Southeast Asian nations , exercising the balanced multi-vector policy, based on the non-interference principle, internally and externally. This, Jakarta/Indonesia headquartered organization has a dynamic past and an ambitious current charter. It is an internally induced and relatively symmetric arrangement with the strongest members placed around its geographic center, like in case of the EU equilibrium with Germany-France/Britain-Italy/Poland-Spain geographically balancing each other. Situated on the geographic axis of the southern flank of the Asian landmass, the so-called growth triangle of Thailand-Malaysia-Indonesia represents the core of the ASEAN not only in economic and communication terms but also by its political leverage. The EU-like ASEAN Community Road Map (for 2015) will absorb most of the Organization’s energy . However, the ASEAN has managed to open its forums for the 3+3 group/s, and could be seen in the long run as a cumulus setting towards the wider pan-Asian forum in future.
Before closing this brief overview, let us mention two recently inaugurated informal forums, both based on the external calls for a burden sharing. One, with a jingoistic-coined name by the Wall Street bankers – BRI(I)C/S, so far includes two important Asian economic, demographic and political powerhouses (India and China), and one peripheral (Russia). Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Iran are a few additional Asian countries whose national pride and pragmatic interests are advocating a BRIC membership. The G–20, the other informal forum, is also assembled on the Ad hoc (pro bono) basis following the need of the G–7 to achieve a larger approval and support for its monetary (currency exchange accord) and financial (austerity) actions introduced in the aftermath of still unsettled financial crisis. Nevertheless, the BRIC and G-20 have not provided the Asian participating states either with the more leverage in the Bretton Woods institutions besides a burden sharing, or have they helped to tackle the indigenous Asian security problems. Appealing for the national pride, however, both informal gatherings may divert the necessary resources and attention to Asian states from their pressing domestic, pan-continental issues.
Yet, besides the UN system machinery of the Geneva-based Disarmament committee, the UN Security Council, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – OPCW and International Atomic Energy Agency – IAEA (or CTBTO), even the ASEAN Asians (as the most multilateralized Asians) have no suitable standing forum to tackle and solve their security issues. An organization similar to the Council of Europe or the OSCE is still far from emerging on Asian soil.
Our history warns. Nevertheless, it also provides a hope: The pre-CSCE (pre-Helsinki) Europe was indeed a dangerous place to live in. The sharp geopolitical and ideological default line was passing through the very heart of Europe, cutting it into halves. The southern Europe was practically sealed off by notorious dictatorships; in Greece (Colonel Junta), Spain (Franco) and Portugal (Salazar), with Turkey witnessing several of its governments toppled by the secular and omnipotent military establishment, with inverted Albania and a (non-Europe minded) non-allied, Tito’s Yugoslavia. Two powerful instruments of the US military presence (NATO) and of the Soviets (Warsaw pact) in Europe were keeping huge standing armies, enormous stockpiles of conventional as well as the ABC weaponry and delivery systems, practically next to each other. By far and large, European borders were not mutually recognized. Essentially, the west rejected to even recognize many of the Eastern European, Soviet dominated/installed governments.
Territorial disputes unresolved
Currently in Asia, there is hardly a single state which has no territorial dispute within its neighborhood. From the Middle East, Caspian and Central Asia, Indian sub-continent, mainland Indochina or Archipelago SEA, Tibet, South China Sea and the Far East, many countries are suffering numerous green and blue border disputes. The South China Sea solely counts for over a dozen territorial disputes – in which mostly China presses peripheries to break free from the long-lasting encirclement. These moves are often interpreted by the neighbors as dangerous assertiveness. On the top of that Sea resides a huge economy and insular territory in a legal limbo – Taiwan, which waits for a time when the pan-Asian and intl. agreement on how many Chinas Asia should have, gains a wide and lasting consensus.
Unsolved territorial issues, sporadic irredentism, conventional armament, nuclear ambitions, conflicts over exploitation of and access to the marine biota, other natural resources including fresh water access and supply are posing enormous stress on external security, safety and stability in Asia. Additional stress comes from the newly emerging environmental concerns, that are representing nearly absolute security threats, not only to the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu , but also to the Maldives, Bangladesh, Cambodia, parts of Thailand, of Indonesia, of Kazakhstan and of the Philippines, etc . All this combined with uneven economic and demographic dynamics of the continent are portraying Asia as a real powder keg.
It is absolutely inappropriate to compare the size of Asia and Europe – the latter being rather an extension of a huge Asian continental landmass, a sort of western Asian peninsula – but the interstate maneuvering space is comparable. Yet, the space between the major powers of post-Napoleonic Europe was as equally narrow for any maneuver as is the space today for any security maneuver of Japan, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the like.
Let us also take a brief look at the peculiarities of the nuclear constellations in Asia. Following the historic analogies; it echoes the age of the American nuclear monopoly and the years of Russia’s desperation to achieve the parity.
Besides holding huge stockpiles of conventional weaponry and numerous standing armies, Asia is a home of four (plus peripheral Russia and Israel) of the nine known nuclear powers (declared and undeclared). Only China and Russia are parties to the Non-proliferation Treaty – NPT. North Korea walked away in 2003, whereas India and Pakistan both confirmed nuclear powers declined to sign the Treaty. Asia is also the only continent on which nuclear weaponry has been deployed.
Cold War exiled in Asia
As is well known, the peak of the Cold War was marked by the mega geopolitical and ideological confrontation of the two nuclear superpowers whose stockpiles by far outnumbered the stockpiles of all the other nuclear powers combined. However enigmatic, mysterious and incalculable to each other , the Americans and Soviets were on opposite sides of the globe, had no territorial disputes, and no record of direct armed conflicts.
Insofar, the Asian nuclear constellation is additionally specific as each of the holders has a history of hostilities – armed frictions and confrontations over unsolved territorial disputes along the shared borders, all combined with the intensive and lasting ideological rivalries. The Soviet Union had bitter transborder armed frictions with China over the demarcation of its long land border. China has fought a war with India and has acquired a significant territorial gain. India has fought four mutually extortive wars with Pakistan over Kashmir and other disputed bordering regions. Finally, the Korean peninsula has witnessed the direct military confrontations of Japan, USSR, Chinese as well as the US on its very soil, and remains a split nation under a sharp ideological divide.
On the western edge of the Eurasian continent, neither France, Britain, Russia nor the US had a (recent) history of direct armed conflicts. They do not even share land borders.
Finally, only India and now post-Soviet Russia have a strict and full civilian control over its military and the nuclear deployment authorization. In the case of North Korea and China, it is in the hands of an unpredictable and non-transparent communist leadership – meaning, it resides outside democratic, governmental decision-making. In Pakistan, it is completely in the hands of a politically omnipresent military establishment. Pakistan has lived under a direct military rule for over half of its existence as an independent state.
What eventually kept the US and the USSR from deploying nuclear weapons was the dangerous and costly struggle called: “mutual destruction assurance”. Already by the late 1950s, both sides achieved parity in the number and type of nuclear warheads as well as in the number and precision of their delivery systems. Both sides produced enough warheads, delivery systems’ secret depots and launching sites to amply survive the first impact and to maintain a strong second-strike capability . Once comprehending that neither the preventive nor preemptive nuclear strike would bring a decisive victory but would actually trigger the final global nuclear holocaust and ensure total mutual destruction, the Americans and the Soviets have achieved a fear–equilibrium through the hazardous deterrence. Thus, it was not an intended armament rush (for parity), but the non-intended Mutual Assurance Destruction – MAD – with its tranquilizing effect of nuclear weaponry, if possessed in sufficient quantities and impenetrable configurations – that brought a bizarre sort of pacifying stability between two confronting superpowers. Hence, MAD prevented nuclear war, but did not disarm the superpowers.
As noted, the nuclear stockpiles in Asia are considerably modest . The number of warheads, launching sites and delivery systems is not sufficient and sophisticated enough to offer the second strike capability. That fact seriously compromises stability and security: preventive or preemptive N–strike against a nuclear or non-nuclear state could be contemplated as decisive, especially in South Asia and on the Korean peninsula, not to mention the Middle East .
A general wisdom of geopolitics assumes the potentiality of threat by examining the degree of intensions and capability of belligerents. However, in Asia this theory does not necessarily hold the complete truth: Close geographic proximities of Asian nuclear powers means shorter flight time of warheads, which ultimately gives a very brief decision-making period to engaged adversaries. Besides a deliberate, a serious danger of an accidental nuclear war is therefore evident.
One of the greatest thinkers and humanists of the 20th century, Erich Fromm wrote: “…man can only go forward by developing (his) reason, by finding a new harmony…”
There is certainly a long road from vision and wisdom to a clear political commitment and accorded action. However, once it is achieved, the operational tools are readily at disposal. The case of Helsinki Europe is very instructive. To be frank, it was the over-extension of the superpowers who contested one another all over the globe, which eventually brought them to the negotiation table. Importantly, it was also a constant, resolute call of the European public that alerted governments on both sides of the default line. Once the political considerations were settled, the technicalities gained momentum: there was – at first – mutual pan-European recognition of borders which tranquilized tensions literally overnight. Politico-military cooperation was situated in the so-called first Helsinki basket, which included the joint military inspections, exchange mechanisms, constant information flow, early warning instruments, confidence–building measures mechanism, and the standing panel of state representatives (the so-called Permanent Council). Further on, an important clearing house was situated in the so-called second basket – the forum that links the economic and environmental issues, items so pressing in Asia at the moment.
Admittedly, the III OSCE Basket was a source of many controversies in the past years, mostly over the interpretation of mandates. However, the new wave of nationalism, often replacing the fading communism, the emotional charges and residual fears of the past, the huge ongoing formation of the middle class in Asia whose passions and affiliations will inevitably challenge established elites domestically and question their policies internationally, and a related search for a new social consensus – all that could be successfully tackled by some sort of an Asian III basket. Clearly, further socio-economic growth in Asia is impossible without the creation and mobilization of a strong middle class – a segment of society which when appearing anew on the socio-political horizon is traditionally very exposed and vulnerable to political misdeeds and disruptive shifts. At any rate, there are several OSCE observing nations from Asia ; from Thailand to Korea and Japan, with Indonesia, a nation that currently considers joining the forum. They are clearly benefiting from the participation .
Consequently, the largest continent should consider the creation of its own comprehensive pan-Asian multilateral mechanism. In doing so, it can surely rest on the vision and spirit of Helsinki. On the very institutional setup, Asia can closely revisit the well-envisioned SAARC and ambitiously empowered ASEAN fora. By examining these two regional bodies, Asia can find and skillfully calibrate the appropriate balance between widening and deepening of the security mandate of such future multilateral organization – given the number of states as well as the gravity of the pressing socio-political, environmental and politico-military challenges.
In the age of unprecedented success and the unparalleled prosperity of Asia, an indigenous multilateral pan-Asian arrangement presents itself as an opportunity. Contextualizing Hegel’s famous saying that “freedom is…an insight into necessity” let me close by stating that a need for the domesticated pan-Asian organization warns by its urgency too.
Clearly, there is no emancipation of the continent; there is no Asian century, without the pan-Asian multilateral setting.
Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident
Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.
Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020
One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.
It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.
The LAC as an idea
Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.
The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.
In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.
Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.
What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?
One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.
The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.
For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.
Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.
The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.
By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.
Diplomacy is gone with the wind
All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.
The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.
India’s diversification of fronts
Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.
Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.
Economic ties, yearning to decouple
Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.
Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.
But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.
The broader picture
The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.
Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’
The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.
India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.
Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.
Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West (part 2)
In the first part of the article, we noted Taiwan has returned as one of the thorniest issues in the US policy toward China under the Biden administration. Almost five months have passed but the new White House is yet to completely formulate its China policy framework. But as they say, the proof the pudding is in the eating. In April third week, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent to the Congress the US Strategic Relations Act of 2021 passed by 22-1 vote. The Act is filled with references to “closer US ties with Taiwan.” The Act, as expected, angered Beijing which accused Biden administration of hyping up the China threat theory.
Fearful of China attacking Taiwan anytime now, a leading US political news magazine recently pitied President Biden for he might become the first president to be thrust upon with the decision to go to war to defend Taiwan. “If a war breaks out over Taiwan, Biden may be forced into a decision no American president since 1979 has wanted to make,” the magazine observed. A similar concern was the focus of a Washington Post report within the first week of Biden coming to office, i.e., “the dragon has woken up and Washington should engage with it.” The newspapers’ national political correspondent Olivier Knox wrote: “President Biden hasn’t been in office for a full week, but already faces questions about one of his most solemn duties: when, why and under what circumstances he might send Americans into combat.”
In fact, from the Trump era onwards the US mainstream media (MSM), the State Department and the Pentagon – all have been consistently building up pressure on the White House to provoke China and take action against “the dragon.” On its part, the White House has increasingly sent out signals “it is prepared to send military into situations where there is high probability of combat.” Dangerous yet true is overall consensus in the US for quite some time demanding “aggressive toughness” as against the so-called “cringing appeasement,” should China commit a “strategic miscalculation” in the SCS or in the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, “wolf warrior” statements and periodic military-strike threat to Taiwan from Beijing have been only adding fuel to the fire.
Let’s recall a short chronology of the US statements and actions over Taiwan in order to ratchet up pressure on Beijing. In part one of the article, we have noted two visits to Taiwan – both “first” since Sino-US normalization of ties in 1979 – by the Trump cabinets’ highest-level officials in September last year; ahead of the two visits, the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, had lunch with Taiwan’s top official in New York, James K. J. Lee. Craft-Lee meeting was described in a section of the US media as “historic” as it was the first time such a meeting took place since China seat at the UN was passed on from Taipei to Beijing in 1971.
Further, in last December, John Ratcliffe, the director of the US National Intelligence wrote in the WSJ: “As Director of National Intelligence, I am entrusted with access to more intelligence than any member of the U.S. government other than the president. If I could communicate one thing to the American people from this unique vantage point, it is that the People’s Republic of China is poses the greatest threat to America today, and the greatest threat to democracy and freedom world-wide since WWII.” Ratcliffe’s article was described by some as aimed at “setting the scene for a post-Trump administration.”
For limitation of space, let me cut to the chase and fast forward to the latest of President Biden’s actions which tantamount to undermining the “One China” policy without openly challenging Beijing but increasing the risk of conflict. Last week, a Democrat and a Republican member of the House of Representatives together moved a bill which would rename Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) as Taiwan Representative Office. According to the bill, it is time for the State Department, for the Congress to take action to elevate relations with Taiwan. Remember, three months ago in March, a similar provocative step was taken by the US ambassador to the archipelago nation of Palau, John Hennessey-Niland. During his visit to Taiwan, a first in 42 years by a sitting envoy, he by mistake referred to Taiwan as “country.” Of course, no clarification or apology to China was offered.
Interestingly, ever since the Carter administration normalized the US-China relations in 1979, on the issue of “One China” policy successive US administrations have all pursued a policy of strategic ambiguity(emphasis added). It has been an open secret and Beijing is not oblivious to the fact that the US understanding on “One China” policy is as good as fiction. Feeling helpless, Beijing so far has been compromising as long as the US does not cross China’s three Red Lines: Taiwan formally declaring independence; Taiwan acquiring nuclear weapon; an “outside power becoming too cozy” to Taiwan. John Culver, who served CIA for over three decades monitoring movements in the Taiwan Strait and retired last year, reckons “Beijing has made clear it has three ‘red lines’ that, if crossed, would see China go to war tomorrow.”
President Biden and his “team China” have been relentlessly issuing statements in order to heighten tensions between the mainland and Taipei. As recently as in April, the Secretary of State Blinken dared Beijing by saying “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try and change the existing status quo by force.” Without specifying when exactly the Chinese government is going to push reunification by force, Joseph Hwang, a professor at Chung Yuan Christian University in Taiwan, said Beijing is waiting for an opportune time. The current lull is “is the quiet before the storm,” Hwang mulled over looking lost.
Inviting Taiwanese envoy to Biden swearing-in should not be viewed as one-off diplomatic move aimed at provoking China. Instead, and in fact, uninterrupted continuity in escalating tensions between China and the US even as Trump exited and Biden entered the White House on one hand, and China relentlessly mounting political, economic and military pressure on Taiwan, on the other hand, have turned the Taiwan Strait into potentially one of the most vulnerable military conflict hotspot. As an article in The Diplomat observed hours after Biden delivered his 100-days to the joint session of the Congress: “The Biden administration entered office at a critical inflection point for the United States. President Biden inherited a world order and in particular an Indo-Pacific region that is undergoing profound change with China’s rise and an ongoing geopolitical shift toward Asia. Within this broad expanse, the Taiwan Strait is increasingly a critical military flashpoint.”
Finally, the purpose of a series of top government officials’ visit to Taipei, top US diplomats referring to Taiwan as “country” by slip of tongue, for several months on continuing presence of the US naval aircraft carriers in SCS and in nearby waters closer to the Taiwan Strait, and the latest attempts to create vaccine “friction” across the Taiwan Strait – all these actions are gearing towards one common goal, i.e., to elevate US-Taiwan relations as Washington prepares for conflict with Beijing. As NIKKEI Asia reported it last month in its ‘Politics’ columns, headlined: “US vows to approach Taiwan with clarity and resolve.” The influential Asian political newsmagazine from Tokyo further stated: “A comprehensive American strategy on China under President Joe Biden’s administration is still in the works, but Washington has promised to approach Taiwan issue with ‘steadiness and clarity and resolve’.”
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee sending a bipartisan bill to the Senate floor in April, sponsored by Senators Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Misch (R-Idaho) respectively, is being described by some critics in US as “the most important piece of legislation regarding US policy toward China in the Congress.” Implying it to be one of the most belligerent bills, Beijing’s China Global Television Network website condemned the bill as the US Congress “declaring Cold War on China.” Referring to Taiwan-related content in the bill, the CGTN said: “The bill contains several misleading statements about the US policy on China’s Taiwan region.” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that the Act stipulates that the US government shall not place any restrictions on the ability of US officials to interact with Taiwan. The Xinhua cited Michael D Swaine, a scholar of China securities Studies, as saying: “the Act epitomizes the worst errors of the new Washington consensus on what a rising supposedly means for the United States and the world.”
Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West
Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?
In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author went on to add.
Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.
In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.
During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”
However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.
This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.
Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft. According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.”
Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement.
A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.
How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.
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