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Xinjiang: China ignores lessons from the past

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Chinese campaign to forcibly assimilate ethnic Uyghurs in its north-western province of Xinjiang in a bid to erase nationalist sentiment, counter militancy, and create an ‘Uyghur Islam with Chinese characteristics’ ignores lessons learnt not only from recent Chinese history but also the experience of others.

The campaign, reminiscent of failed attempts to undermine Uyghur culture during the Cultural Revolution, involves the creation of a surveillance state of the future and the forced re-education of large numbers of Turkic Muslims.

In what amounts to an attempt to square a circle, China is trying to reconcile the free flow of ideas inherent to open borders, trade and travel with an effort to fully control the hearts and minds of it population.

In doing so, it is ignoring lessons of recent history, including the fallout of selective support for militants and of religion to neutralize nationalism that risks letting a genie out of the bottle.

Recent history is littered with Chinese, US and Middle Eastern examples of the backfiring of government support of Islamists and/or militants.

No example is more glaring than US, Saudi, Pakistani and Chinese support in the 1980s for militant Islamists who fought and ultimately forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. The consequences of that support have reverberated across the globe ever since.

Some analysts suggest that China at the time was aware of the radicalization of Uyghurs involved in the Afghan jihad and may have even condoned it.

Journalist John Cooley reported that China, in fact, had in cooperation with Pakistan trained and armed Uyghurs in Xinjiang as well as Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The notion that Islam and/or Islamists could help governments counter their detractors was the flavour of the era of the 1970s and 1980s.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat saw the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as an anti-dote to the left that was critical of both his economic liberalization and outreach to Israel that resulted in the first peace treaty with an Arab state.

Saudi Arabia funded a four-decade long effort to promote ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam and backed the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces that helped create the breeding ground for jihadism and wreaked havoc in countries like Pakistan.

China’s experience with selective support of militancy and the use of religion to counter nationalist and/or other political forces is no different.

China’s shielding from designation by the United Nations as a global terrorist of Masood Azhar complicates Pakistani efforts to counter militancy at home and evade blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for a 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station.

Back in the 1980s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping saw his belief that what China expert Justin Jon Rudelson called a “controlled revival” of religion would foster economic development and counter anti-government sentiment boomerang.

The revival that enabled an ever larger number of Uyghurs to travel to Mecca via Pakistan for the haj made Saudi Arabia and the South Asian state influential players in Uyghur Islam. Uyghurs, wanting to perform the haj, frequently needed Pakistani contacts to act as their hosts to be able to obtain a Chinese exit visa.

The opening, moreover, allowed Muslim donors to provide financial assistance to Xinjiang. Saudi Arabia capitalized on the opportunity as part of its global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to put money into the building of mosques and establishment of madrassas.

Receptivity for more conservatives forms of Islam, particularly in southern parts of Xinjiang that were closest to Central and South Asia, suggested that the closure of Xinjiang’s borders during the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s and the cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had done little to persuade Uyghurs to focus their identity more on China than on Central Asia.

In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in Central Asia coupled with rising inequality rekindled Uyghur nationalism.

The rise of militant Islamist and jihadist Uyghurs constituted in many ways a fusion of Soviet and Western-inspired secular nationalist ideas that originated in Central Asia with religious trends more popular in South Asia and the Gulf in an environment in which religious and ethnic identity were already inextricably interlinked.

The juxtaposition, moreover, of exposure to more orthodox forms of Islam and enhanced communication also facilitated the introduction of Soviet concepts of national liberation, which China had similarly adhered to with its support for various liberation movements in the developing world.

The exposure put Xinjiang Uyghurs in touch with nationalist Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that fed on what political science PhD candidate Joshua Tschantret terms “ideology-feeding grievances.”

Nationalists, dubbed ‘identity entrepreneurs’ by Gulf scholar Toby Matthiesen, built on the presence of some 100,000 Uyghurs who had fled to Central Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960 during Mao Zedong’s social and economic Great Leap Forward campaign that brutally sought to introduce industrialization and collectivization and the descendants of earlier migrations.

With Pakistan’s political, economic and religious elite, ultimately seduced by Chinese economic opportunity and willing to turn a blind eye to developments in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the South Asian country had little alternative but to drift towards the country’s militants.

Militant madrassas yielded, however, to Pakistani government pressure to stop enrolling Uyghurs. The militants were eager to preserve tacit Chinese support for anti-Indian militants operating in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s foremost Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, went as far as signing in 2009 a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese communist party that pledged support for Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang.

Despite eagerness to address Chinese concerns, Pakistan and China’s selective support of militants is likely to continue to offer radicalized Uyghurs opportunity.

“Jihadis and other religious extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to benefit from their support,” said former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, discussing overall Pakistani policy rather than official attitudes towards the Uyghurs.

Cultural anthropologist Sean R. Roberts noted that Central and South Asia became with the reopening of the borders in the second half of the 1980s “critical links between the inhabitants of Xinjiang and both the Islamic and Western worlds; and politically, they have become pivotal but contentious areas of support for the independence movement of Uyghurs.

The 1979 inauguration of the of the 1,300-kilometre-long Karakoram highway linking Kashgar in Xinjiang to Abbottabad in Pakistan, one of the highest paved roads in the world, served as a conduit for Saudi-inspired religious ultra-conservatism, particularly in southern Xinjiang as large numbers of Pakistanis and Uyghurs traversed the border.

Pakistani traders doubled as laymen missionaries adding Islamic artefacts, including pictures of holy places, Qurans and other religious literature to their palette of goods at a time that Islamist fighters were riding high with their defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the emergence of the Taliban.

Increased religiosity became apparent in Xinjiang.

Women donned veils in what was traditionally a more liberal land. Students of religion made their way to madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan where they came into contact with often Saudi-inspired Pakistani and Afghan militants – trends that China is trying to reverse with the construction of an Orwellian type surveillance state coupled with stepped-up repression and intimidation.

“The cross-border linkages established by the Uyghurs through access provided by the highway, Beijing’s tacit consent to expand Uyghur travel and economic links with Pakistan through Reform Era policies, and Beijing’s explicit consent in supporting anti-Soviet operations – all prompted the radicalization of a portion of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs,” concluded China scholar Ziad Haider more than a decade ago.

The process was fuelled by the recruitment in the 1990s of Uyghur students in Pakistani madrassas by the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, both of which were linked to Al Qaeda. Some 22 Uyghurs captured by US forces in Afghanistan ended up in Guantanamo Bay.

The eruption of protests in Xinjiang in the late 1990s and late 2000s against rising income differences and the influx of Han Chinese put an end to official endorsement of a religious revival that was increasingly seen by authorities as fuelling nationalism and facilitating Islamists.

Seemingly stubborn insistence on a Turkic and Muslim identity is likely one reason that China’s current assimilation drive comes as Xinjiang’s doors to its neighbours are being swung open even wider with the construction of new road and rail links as part of the People’s Republic’s infrastructure-centred Belt and Road initiative.

Forced assimilation is designed to bolster China’s expectation that increased economic ties to South and Central Asia will contribute to development of its north-western province, giving Uyghurs a stake that they will not want to put at risk by adhering to nationalist or militant religious sentiment.

The crackdown and forced assimilation is further intended to reduce the risk of a flow of ideas and influences through open borders needed for economic development and cementing Xinjiang into the framework of China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiatives that spans Eurasia

The assimilation effort is enabled by China’s Great Fire Wall designed to wall the country off of free access to the Internet. In doing so, China hoped in Xinjiang to halt cultural exchanges with Central Asia such as political satire that could reinforce Uyghurs’ Turkic and Central Asian identity.

The breadth of the more recent crackdown has complicated but not halted the underground flow of cultural products enabled by trade networks.

Mr. Roberts noted as early as 2004 that Chinese efforts aiming to regulate rather than reshape or suppress Islam were backfiring.

“Interest in the idea of establishing a Muslim state in Xinjiang has only increased with recent Chinese policies that serve to regulate the practice of Islam in the region,” Mr. Roberts said at the time.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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East Asia

China’s new strategic positioning

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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 While China is “narrowing” its production lines at national or international levels, a very important signal is the new relationship established between Turkey and the United States to replace China as a supply chain.

 Obviously the new “cold war” between China and the United States cannot but create good opportunities for countries such as Turkey which aspire to establish their hegemony over Central Asia and hence to reduce China’s weight both in global and regional trade.

 This is the price that Turkey pays happily and without particular problems to the United States for affording its autonomous policy in the Maghreb region, in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Balkans and in Central Asia, up to supporting the Xinjiang Muslims in China above all to nip the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative in the bud.

 Meanwhile Botas, the state-owned distributor of Turkish natural gas, has proposed the construction of a pipeline from its Northern Turkish coast to Nakhicevan, Armenia, so as to reduce Armenia’s imports from Iran and thus slowly distancing from Iran. This is music to American ears.

 Therefore, Erdogan’s Turkey also bets on the new “cold war” between the United States and China, thus proposing itself as a third wheel and hence as the basis for the technical and commercial replacement of the production networks from China itself to the area controlled by Turkey.

There is a “but”, however: Turkey has a public deficit of 5.6 billion U.S. dollars (according to April 2020 data), but so far only Chinese capital and funds have arrived to support a 400 million swap between the renmimbi and the Turkish Lira.

 A Chinese company bought the Kumport Terminal, on the Sea of Marmara, for 940 million, and in November 2019 Turkey saw the first train arriving from Xi’an, through the Maramay tunnel built and funded by China, which allows to have a non-stop line from China to Europe. An asset not to be overlooked.

 The Turkish e-commerce platform, Trendyol, was later acquired by Alibaba but, as all Turkish finance experts say, it would require a further and probably strong devaluation of the Turkish lira which, however, needs substantial “fresh” investment from abroad.

Therefore, it is unlikely for an economy such as Turkey’s to take harsh and definitive action against Chinese interests.

Nevertheless, what does Donald J. Trump’s America really want from China?

 The US Presidency’ Strategic Approach to China, published on May 26, 2020, maintains that the threat posed by the CPC to U.S. economic, military and strategic interests, as well as to its “values” is a primary danger.

 If we look at the history of such statements, only in the days of the harshest “Cold War” with the USSR were such terms used.

As to economic competition, the United States accuses not the State, but directly the CPC, of overtly “protectionist State policies that have harmed American workers and businesses”.

 With damage caused also to global markets, the environment and global trade law. Nevertheless,the sanctions imposed by China on U.S. goods in 2019 were anyway adopted by the WTO, whose negotiation system has been called into question by the United States itself.

 In fact, Trump’s America accuses particularly the CPC of “taking advantage of its WTO membership to become the world’s largest exporter, but systematically and harshly protecting its domestic market”.

What is the United States doing? The U.S. real and deep accusation is against the Belt & Road Initiative: the United States interprets this great commercial-strategic operation as an attempt to reshape the world market according to the internal needs of the Communist regime in China.

 Moreover, as the United States always maintains, China wants to use not the international networks, but its own courts, as arbitration courts. Is it true or false? Obviously there is the ICC, but other courts of reference are also formally possible, based on UN-type commercial law.

As to the Chinese challenge to American values, the U.S. document states that “China is engaged in an ideological competition with the West”.

The U.S. current idea is based on President Xi Jinping’s old statement (dating back to 2013) whereby China must prepare for a “long phase of cooperation and conflict” with the capitalist West, and it is always stated that “capitalism is dying and Socialism will triumph”. It could not be otherwise considering his Marxist background and ideas.

 Obviously so, since President Xi does not certainly come from a salon in Manhattan.

Moreover, the United States never wants China to project itself as a world leader and a country of great global influence. Here again it wants the fight against corruption to stop, since for the United States it was only and exclusively a way to eliminate president Xi’s opponents.

Is it true? Yes, but obviously not only so. One and a half million corrupt people punished by the State, but many of them are real, while others are certainly “enemies” of President Xi’s policy line.

The U.S. Presidency, however, is mainly afraid of the Chinese Military-Civil Fusion and hence of the commercial-security blockade that, in the very long run, could put an end to the traditional U.S. hegemony in the Pacific.

 Moreover, the two military games made by the RAND Corporation, about a year ago, concerning a clash in the South Pacific between U.S. and Chinese-Russian forces, demonstrated that the United States would soon be defeated.

Hence, as usual, for the United States once again it is primarily a matter of “protecting the People, the Homeland, the American way of life”. There is great fear for Chinese “propaganda” in the United States, as if it could not be opposed at all. A sweeping analysis was made for Chinese students, the largest foreign community in the United States, and a regulation called Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act was enacted. In January 2020 the United States and China signed also the “Phase One” of a major trade agreement that, according to the United States, is expected to change Chinese business practices significantly. In fact, the agreement provides that the CPC cannot force or orient foreign companies to transfer their technology to keep on producing or selling in China. It also strengthens the rules on the protection of intellectual data in China and finally opens up Chinese markets to U.S. agricultural products, on which it has much relied for its foreign policy.

 On the military level, the U.S. Administration (and it would be anyway the same if there were another President) wants a new relationship with “similar” and “friendly” countries so as to counter the Chinese military build-up and develop the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. In other words, obviously the U.S. block of every “One China Policy”, but hence implicit support to internal factionalism, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as proposing a stop to the Chinese expansion between Xinjiang and Pakistan’s maritime network.

Furthermore, as to the ideological struggle, support for Religious Freedom, the usual fight for “human rights”, the U.S. protections for “minorities’ liberties”. That is all. But we do not think it will be enough.

 Certainly, Chinese infrastructural investment is currently designed to competing with the United States and better controlling civil society.

 The 55-kilometre bridge going from Hong Kong to Macao, with two artificial islands that allow the road to sink 7 kilometres into a very long underwater tunnel is an eminently political and strategic project.

 Obviously, it is in fact a matter of building a Unified Commercial Zone, like the one in New York or Tokyo.

 But it is also a matter of creating a strategic control zone to currently protect those coasts, which are currently more economically important than China. However, it is precisely in this area that as much as 4% of the regional and national GDP is dedicated to the construction of quantum computer networks and encryption. The classic civil-military dual objective.

 Currently China is already a leading country in quantum communications between Space and Earth. It has already built a Quantum Computing Laboratory in Hefei, Anhui Province, with 10 billion U.S. dollars, while the China-U.S. Economic and Security Commission has established that, as early as 2000, China had bridged the technological gap with the United States with regard to quantum computing.

Is it true? We do not know for sure, but this is certainly where the real economic and intelligence war between China and the United States is developing.

As Krugman maintained in an old article for Foreign Affairs, nations are not corporationsand they do not compete one another as companies always do. Nations, however, certainly compete for market outlets, for financial resources, for technologies and for cultural or influence operations.

 There is nothing else. Nevertheless, we must never forget that the major countries’ strategic “policy line”, to which Italy adapts in a sheep like way, envisages variables – also for the small and medium countries – which are not at all negligible.

Also at military level, China’s operations in Ladakh and Tibet are an example of the interest – dating back to Mao Zedong’s times – in using Tibet as “the palm of the Chinese hand” to expand China’s influence throughout South Asia, which is a primary strategic axis.

 It is a matter of encircling India and later stable geo-economic blocs are built, just against India, with the Chinese expansion in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

 There must always be a spatial logic – we would classically define as geopolitics – which follows the definition of a country’s primary interest. When it knows how to evaluate it,however, which certainly does not happen currently in Italy.

In any case Tibet would have been India’s first natural defence line, if China had not already taken itas early as 1950.

Hence Tibet, with its strategic “five fingers”, i.e. Ladakh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, will be China’s checkpoint from the South, and we do not believe it will be easily opened by India’s collaboration with other countries, such as the United States.

Without Tibet available, economic, military and intelligence operations against the Belt&Road Initiative will be largely blocked.

Furthermore, President Xi Jinping – who knows the Party and State apparatus very well – has recently launched a campaign of “Security Apparatus Clean-up”. Since November 2012, President Xi Jinping has also marginalised the old leader of the Chinese security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang, directly acquiring an assignment from Politburo and not from Politburo Standing Committee.

Nowadays, China’s security apparatus budget is officially estimated at 183,272 million yuan, equivalent to 26.6 billion U.S. dollars.

While Zhou Yongkang, a man of Hua Guofeng and later of Deng Xiaoping, was arrested in 2012, Hu Jintao himself sent as many as 3,000 Intelligence Service executives to re-education camps.

 3,000 executives in a total of 1.97 million officials and operatives.

Nevertheless, this year the turning point has been the establishment of the Safe China Construction Coordinating Small Group, now led by Guo Shengkun.

Later Lin Rui came. President Xi Jinping still trusts him and, however, he is a computer engineer.

Nevertheless, the “clean-up of the security apparatus”in Xi Jinping’s hands will most likely be completed next year.

 A new “Yan’an Rectification Movement”, like the one that Mao Zedong promoted.

Rectification campaigns, collection of Xi Jinping’s sayings to “set the policy line”, with the collection of the “four consciences” (ideology, the whole country, principles and policies) and the four trusts (Socialism with Chinese characteristics; trust in a system that proposes the nature of Chinese Socialism; trust in its own culture and values).

Hence this will be the intellectual and operative scenario with which Xi Jinping will fight against the United States. A fight which will not be easy, but not even with a predictable result.

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East Asia

Here is How China Responds to US in Indo-Pacific

Jannus TH. Siahaan

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Trump administration recognizes the Chinese style of war with the term of  “Unrestricted Warfare,” unlimited war on all fronts, not merely a matter of arms war. Therefore, Trump continues to try to bulldoze China from various sides, the economy, corporation, media, education, the military, etc. How China sees war is not a new things. James Burnham in his book “The War  We Are In“, half a century ago, has very clearly been explained. I argue, in addition to continuing to enjoy the “Thucydides trap” theory, the way how China has been looking at war is also crucial in determining the Chinese style of facing America in the South China Sea. China clearly hopes to play with a long-term strategy, given its very long leadership period. Unlike the American President, who will always be threatened by his position once every four years.

So China most likely will not fight America openly in the South China Sea, but continue to increase its power. While on the other hand, China begin to undermine America’s strategic partners one by one. Such as, South Korea, Japan, India and Australia. That’s why, China certainly needs North Korea to disrupt. Why? Based on the American “island line” strategy, South Korea is the center of the first “island line”. There are approximately 28,000 more American troops in South Korea. Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear warhead can reach Japan, even reaching the center of America’s second “island line” on Guam. Providing dangerous threats in America’s first and second “island line” circles will make Taiwan easier to seize and then disrupting the coordination lines of American power in South China Sea with its closest partners

While in the East, China continues to press and is ready to have a military dispute with India on the Line of Actual Control. Without much public attention, China has surrounded India for the past several years. China already has military bases in Djibouti and possibly in Gwadar Pakistan, both thanks to the cooperation of the Road and Belt Initiative, where Djibouti was finally unable to pay debts, then its port was diverted to China and made a military base. The same thing happened with Gwadar. And most likely, China will be very able to convince Russia not to get involved by offering economic benefits from the war between India and Russia, because both countries –China and India — are consumers of Russian weapons.

On the other hand, China will continue to wreak revenge on trade war with America to Australia, to the maximum extent that losses can be received by the land of Kangoroos. Especially after the involvement of the Australian Frigate in the American international navigation convoy on South China Sea and after Australia reacted on China about covering up Covid 19. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. China seems to be quite sure, with the application of high tariffs for many Australia’s export commodities will weaken the country’s economic capabilities. And all the shock therapy will give a bad signal to the countries around the South China Sea.

The same way will be played with Canada that has imprisond Meng Wanzhou, CFO Hua Wei, at the request of American extradition law. And don’t forget, slowly but surely, the Belt and Road Initiative has also divided Europe, Africa, and slowly in the Middle East. Now, when it comes to Chinese matters, the European Union does not all agree that China is a threat (just competitor even after Covid 19 and Hong Kong Case), since the fast train line and any infrastructure projects have split the blue continent.

Then at the American domestic level itself, China will probably continue to intervene and infiltrate elections, ride various issues that have the potential to weaken Trump’s position. Although China said, it is very happy if Trump was re-elected because Trump has the potential to damage the American alliance with many countries. But, it’s pretty sure to translate that China really  want Joe Biden to win. It’s easier for China if democrats are enthroned.

Is America likely to lose? I still believe, the Chinese war is not for today. Today, militarily and economically, America still has the upper hand. However, Xi is a marathon runner, Xi may be the president for life. But the signals of the threat of Unrestricted War are already visible. Today, on the other hand, geostrategically America has long made an alliance to surround China. In South China Sea, America still has Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore (maybe Indonesia) even though South Korea and Japan are intimidated  by North Korea. Also in economic side, for example, though China stay growing 6 percent stably and America is only 1-2 percent stably, China still needs decades to catch up to America’s GDP per capita.

Therefore, China will play long and pay in instalments one by one the target. China will probably not focus on South China Sea with hard power, but on Taiwan first, after Hong Kong was successfully acquired without war, by continuing to spread threats in the South China Sea to divide American concentration. After Tse Ing Wen came to the power, peace unification with China had failed. The offer of “one country two systems” was rejected by Tse Ing Wen and the people of Taiwan. As a result, China will boast more power around Taiwan, while preoccupying South Korea and Japan with North Korea’s actions, and still looks aggressive at South China Sea.

This is one form of “Omni-dimensional war” of China, as Burnham wrote. But China will really need a lot of energies and patience to play long, more over after pandemic which has been throwing them to the corner of international order. Meanwhile, in short, US will be more aggressive in South China Sea to get more attention from Trump’s domestic supporter till the next election day. So, the more successful Trump in making Americans angry (hate) at China is one of the keys to Trump getting a majority of votes in the elections later. I’m pretty sure, Trump will continue to play this Chinese card in the next few months ahead, until the election comes. And the medium term result is that South China Sea will just be provocative theater for both.

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What Does Beijing’s Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy Mean for Moscow?

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Moscow wishes to remain a “non-regional power” in the “Indo-Asia-Pacific” region (IAPR)  – it wants to maintain commonly held perceptions of itself as a non-threat to the region’s security and economic structure; and it frequently notes that it has no ulterior motives in changing said structure.

However, with Beijing increasingly threatening sanctions and retaliation against those who oppose it’s economic/political practices, violating sovereign waters in the South China Sea (SCS), and continuing on with the extortionary Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), Moscow’s neutrality may be brought into question. China’s recent actions in the SCS and on the Line of Actual Control with India – courtesy of Beijing’s nationalistic, “wolf-warrior” policy –  have brought it in greater conflict with the international community; a conflict that will also extend to Russia.

Wolf Warrior: Undercutting Moscow’s Great Power Status

While Moscow has  calibrated its position on the “Indo-Pacific” in congruence with that of Beijing’s, i.e. it is a redundant conception designed to exclude/contain China, challenge inherent regionalism, and prop up US allies and interests, Beijing’s continued use of aggressive economic and territorial policies may test this position in the immediate future.

This is because Moscow’s approach to the region is based on three interests – its ambitions to maintain ‘great-power’ status, its need to balance a growing US military presence, and its desire to cultivate greater economic ties with Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, it would seem that only one of these interests is fulfilled by siding with Beijing, that of countering US military presence. Moreover, the other interests – remaining a neutral great power, and developing greater economic relationships with Southeast Asia, are directly obstructed by Beijing’s wolf-warrior diplomacy.

By siding with Beijing on all fronts, or even remaining silent on these trespasses, not only is Moscow undercutting its image a “great-power”, it also brings itself directly in conflict with Beijing, and antagonises its relationships with IAPR members such as India and ASEAN. E.g. against the Indo-Pacific, Moscow continues to regard the Indian Ocean and India as supernumerary to the IAPR question (something may have to reconsider in light of recent events); China’s territorial claims in East Asia have a direct impact on Moscow’s navigation of its own territorial disputes with Japan and South Korea; Russian infrastructure projects in the SCS are stymied due conflicting China-ASEAN territorial claims.

The Economics of Being in Beijing’s Shadow

On the economic front, Moscow has made use of the ‘Greater Eurasia’ mission centred on Russian-led economic multilateralism, with itself as a net-energy provider, physically as a conduit between Asia and Europe, and as an arms supplier. Among a number of highway, railway, sea-port, oil-rig infrastructure projects, two key ones are the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean Pipeline network, and the Trans-Korean Railway system. With these projects, Moscow hopes to create trans-regional connectivity with Russia at the centre, beginning in the Russian Far East and Siberia, and ending in Europe.

Arms sales are a major contributor to Russia’s image and economic advantages in the region; 60 percent of all arms purchased between 2014-18 in Southeast Asia were of Russian origin. In exchange for these sales, Moscow wishes to not only develop greater security cooperation in maritime, anti-piracy/terrorism and intelligence fields, but also directly barter the development of cooperative economic zones and other energy projects.

Unfortunately, the absence of appropriate funding, political will, and wider international interest, Greater Eurasia found itself tied, almost subservient to Beijing’s BRI; an initiative that in itself is being challenged by both participants and non-parties. This spells not only the death knell of a “Russia-led” multilateralism, but also the strategic autonomy required by the Kremlin to maintain ‘great-power’ status.

Such is Beijing’s shadow, that even individual deals with Vietnam and the Philippines for oil/gas exploration are viewed as contentious, e.g. Chinese fishing militias blocked Vietnamese and Rosneft workers from continuing oil-rig work in the Vanguard Bank in 2019, after Beijing warned Moscow not to do so in 2018.

And finally, while the economic field is already dominated by Beijing’s commercial imperialism and the BRI, Russian arms sales also come into direct competition with  China’s growing defence export industry. It is yet another space, where the highly unequal partnership between Moscow and Beijing may spell poor crops for the former.

Normative Dilemma and Medium-Term Concerns

Many of the countries that Russia holds as gateways to the region – Japan, South Korea and ASEAN members – are in conflict with Beijing’s territorial claims and economic imperialism; some directly under threat, others within the US-China dilemma.

Even though the Russia-US relationship has deteriorated over the years, essentially forcing a de facto, long-term Russia-China commitment, Moscow must realise that this relationship is harmful to its own interests. If Moscow’s aims are to remain autonomous and neutral, and develop greater diplomatic and economic relationships in the region, an approach based on Chinese influence or within its shadow will permanently taint those aims. No longer will Russia be viewed as a non-regional power, even its attempts to wean away from Euro-centric trade will be choked by international controversy and resistance to Beijing’s influence.

On the security front, analysts in the Kremlin are also taking cognisance of the fact that Russia’s current position may require it to actively participate in a medium-term US-China conflict; something that would not only strain its own limited resources and hamper the revitalisation of the Eastern Military District and modernisation of the Pacific Fleet, but also its relationship with Southeast Asia.

Conclusion

Moscow’s normative approach to the IAPR, its economic outreach to Southeast Asia, its ‘Greater Eurasia’ project, its desire to effectively balance US and allied presence, all are now under threat due to China’s belligerency. The question though remains – how long will it take Moscow to pull away from Beijing’s influence? The economic and security implications of pivoting support away from China, would be massive in Russia; the cost of losing amenable economic ties with Beijing, and a cohesive bulwark against US presence would be enormous.

Barring the issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan (issues that it will never take up), Moscow’s desire to retain good-will and productive partnerships in Southeast Asia will however in the long-term, come under great duress due to China’s nationalistic and belligerent foreign policy in the IAPR.

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South Africa: COVID-19 pandemic raises the urgency of structural reforms

South Africa responded swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the sharp drop in activity adds to long-standing challenges and raises...

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Commission concludes talks to secure future coronavirus vaccine for Europeans

The European Commission has concluded exploratory talks with a pharmaceutical company to purchase a potential vaccine against COVID-19. The envisaged...

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WTO Fundamental to Economic Recovery and Sustainable and Inclusive Growth

Asia-Pacific business leaders from the APEC Business Advisory Council (ABAC), meeting virtually this week, called on the region’s Trade Ministers...

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