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Revisiting the Strengths and Potentials of SCO in a Changing Geopolitical Setting

Ramla Khan

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Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was founded in the 2001 by the like-minded Eurasian states led by People’s Republic of China. Since the more than seventeen-years of its existence there have been dramatic shifts at the global geopolitical environment, characterized by a relatively declining US power and influence, resurgence of the Russian “Bear” under Putin and the rise of India and China as the economic hubs of the world. The implication are vast for SCO is such a setting which would continue to surge in the wake of growing interest of the superpower in the Indo-Pacific region. In order to contemplate the prospective of SCO in these surroundings there is a first a need to look back in history for the organizations credentials.

SCO has witnessed limited progress to be fair over the years. Although it did have to its name breakthroughs such as providing a platform for antagonistic adversaries such as India and Pakistan to conduct joint military exercises. Added to that, in the last decade its influence in the politics of Eurasia has coursed to great lengths.  The organization covered 50 percent of global population and an area of 3716km that is before India and Pakistan were added in the picture. India with an economy of roughly $2.6 trillion and geography of the 7th largest land-mass state, along with Pakistan which with a $300 billion economy and 200 million population adds to the equation.

The organization as illustrated above presents a striking picture of tremendous power and influence when and if used “smartly and positively”. There is also a defence-oriented mindset behind the working of the SCO which is why it has been called the “NATO of the East”. It has been alleged that the organizations works in jeopardy by destabilizing the Post-Cold War unipolar structure in favor of a “multi-polar world order” of China and Russia.

It is interesting to note that the evolution of organization laid as a result of conflict resolution between Russia (former Soviet Union) and China who in the latter part of the Cold War remained hostile despite being socialist Marxist-Leninst inspired states. The two behaved rationally one could argue by putting aside their disputes and reconciling on territorial issues which laid the foundations of the “Shanghai Five”. Steady progress since then was made by Russia and China, whose progress was incorporated to trade, military and scientific cooperation which absolved them to the animosities of the past. The political calculations made, Western experts would argue was due to the mounting influence of NATO and US across the globe.

The SCO family with the expansion of India and Pakistan is an important development noting that two the possess nuclear weapons. This makes it one of the most powerful organization in the world with a combined nuclear arsenal that would from an estimate be more than 50 percent of global stockpile. Hence, out of the nine nuclear weapon states, four being part of the SCO adds to its stature. There is a possibility that with the “bridge building” history of the organization which has resolved disputes for the members in the past may extend such courtesy to the long unresolved issue of Kashmir, a bone of major contention between India and Pakistan. If such a feat becomes reality, the region could have degree of almost unprecedented stability in the modern times which would boost the economic and security impetus of all the region. SCO at present strategizes to expand its presence even further via the convenience of allowing for “Observer status” to states and regional bodies. It is a fact that Shanghai Cooperation Organization holds a degree of influence that is greater in terms of land-mass than NATO itself.

SCO and Anti-Terrorism

Global terrorism has been categorized as the deadliest of the threats in non-traditional security domain. The focus of SCO remains to be root out the destabilizing factors of “terrorism, separatism and extremism”. The SCO remains to be the single organization that has dedicated an entire wing, the “Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure” (RAT) for this menace, created months prior to the deadly “September 11” Terrorist attacks in the US. Over the years, SCO has arranged several meetings where NATO member states were invited to come up with a join action plan to counter drug smuggling, terrorism and other criminal activities.

SCO and Trade

SCO started as a platform that would facilitate peaceful resolution of border dispute and build-in a degree of military-to-military confidence. The changing geopolitical realities beset at the early parts of the 21st Century provided impetus to extend the influence to other major areas including of trade, contemporary security and politics. The patterns have since then reciprocated evenly where member states are at presented bonded via trade agreements. Such an approach has allowed Russia and China to experience growth in bilateral trade ties in recent years.

It would be interesting to see how China links up its grandeur vision of reviving the “Old Silk Route” with SCO. Linking the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) would provide the degree of trust and mutual acceptability that has been undermined by competitors and adversaries such as US via the tools of propaganda and disinformation against the “China’s Dream”. Pakistan remains at a paramount in the emerging geopolitics where the interests of former, current and aspiring powers lie at the convergence. In order for the 21st Century to be the “Asian Century,” all stakeholders need to redefine their interests from a rational approach that should be centered on “geoeconomics” rather than “geopolitics”. It is peace and stability will the “liberal market economic model” provide the maximum results, conflicts and war would not be desirable in the interests of any power in a world deeply embedded into virtues of “complex interdependence”. The SCO in this pretext can to provide the solidity to the majestic destiny that lie for the region with the largest program of economic diplomacy since the Marshall Planat its disposal to what the 20th neo-classical economist called “Creative Destruction”.

Ramla Khan has her Alma matter from International Relations Department at National Defence University Islamabad. Her writings have appeared on reputed national and international policy institutes, including Centre for Strategy and Contemporary Research (CSCR) Pakistan, Modern Diplomacy, StrafAsia United Kingdom and Andalas Institute of International Affairs, Indonesia. She writes on matters of global security and disinformation operations strategy with a special focus towards development in the South Asian region.

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Defense

The Chinese Navy: A new force is rising in the East

Themistoklis Z. Zanidis

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The information coming to the West from various sources, either open or closed, regarding the Chinese Navy, concludes on the finding that in the last couple of decades an extensive program of modernization and numerical expansion of the Navy, by the Chinese authorities, is underway. The fundamental pillar of China’s (not-so-future) Navy, known as the People’s Liberation Army Navy PLAN, (will be) for its aircraft carriers; cruisers; destroyers; amphibious assault ships; and submarines. In general, China is arming with modern multi-purpose ships, with the purpose of attacking and defending capabilities. Its discernible ambition is to use its fleet against the dominant US Navy, whose presence is pronounced in the China Sea and consequently in the Pacific Ocean. As a matter of fact, the Chinese Navy is already considered to be the second most powerful in the world, exceeding historical Naval Powers such as the United Kingdom and Japan. Indicatively, we note the fact that the once dominant Royal Navy is currently comprised of only 9 destroyers and 2 aircraft carriers, while the Chinese, respectively and exceeds those numbers.  It is the swiftest growing Navy in the world. Literally, since 2014, the Chinese Navy has launched more warships than the Royal Navy has on duty today.

This article will be focusing on the rapid development of the Chinese Navy, which incidentally is only one aspect of Beijing’s overall maritime strategy (another aspect refers to the construction of military bases on tiny islands within the entire Chinese Sea and abroad, as in Djibouti).  China aims to secure the homeland from a possible attack from the sea and to protect their vulnerable maritime supply lines. In the Chinese strategic culture, the Age of Humiliation is of paramount importance, because it had been the period when the Chinese were subservient to Westerners. Therefore, the Never Again of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is the legitimizing substance which keeps it in power but simultaneously a commitment that satisfies the nationalist Chinese instincts. China is keen to return to its former position, before its contact with the Western Powers, so its policy is towards this strategic target.

It was not until the 1990’s that the Chinese forces consisted of out-of-dated naval vessels with limited offensive and defensive capabilities. Furthermore, the Chinese fleet was limited to about 150 main units (destroyers, frigates, submarines) and no conventional aircraft carriers. Today, China has both fiscal and technological ability to build domestic projects at a rapid pace. In order to understand the class size of the Chinese naval armaments program we will note that in 2016 and 2017 the country’s Navy launched 18 and 14 units respectively, while the US Navy launched only 5 and 8.

 The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that in the forthcoming 15 years, the Chinese Navy will deploy 430 surface units and 100 submarines, while other valid US estimations set this number up to 530. The U.S. Pentagon estimates that this year alone (2020) the Chinese Navy will deploy 78 submarines; 60 stealth-guided-missile ships; 40 corvettes fit for the environment of the Chinese Sea (while 60 more are waiting to be delivered); 24 modern all purpose frigates; 20 state-of-the-art destroyers; 12 cruisers with a delivery horizon in the current decade; 4 fleet support ships; 3 helicopter carriers; 5 ships of amphibious assault missions; and 2 aircraft carriers with the third already under construction.

The informed reader may be concerned as this extensive construction of warships is inconsistent with the Silent Rise which was the official doctrine of the Chinese government until recently. According to it, the country should, at all costs, continue its uninterrupted economic growth, capitalizing on the globalization. This will happen only if the country manages not to provoke the United States as well as neighboring countries, many of which are close allies to Washington (like Japan and South Korea). However, it seems that the Chinese elite is increasingly abandoning this doctrine while adopting a more provocative stance through a peculiar nationalism, especially as economic growth decelerates. In this context, the extensive reinforcement of the Chinese Navy is deliberated and resulting in an increasing concern of neighbor states and the United States, which realizes that the balance of naval power is gradually turning at its expense. China, in order to become a great power again should secure its sovereignty, especially the homeland, from possible attacks. This is incidental to the expulsion of all the American forces which are based in the region and specifically from the China Sea. The Chinese high strategy can only be fruitful with the presence of a modern and powerful Navy (blue-water Navy) combined with an extensive network of military bases which Beijing is rapidly building on tiny, sometimes disputable, islands throughout the China Sea. With those facts and the Chinese demands, no state including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan, feels safe, although the published Chinese military doctrine remains chiefly defensive.

Regarding the Chinese Navy, it’s noticeable that the modernization program is traced back only to 2012, when President Hu Jintao, during the 18th Congress of the CCP, ordered the country to be transformed into a sea power. More recently, President Xi Jinping declared that the current situation urges China to develop its naval forces promptly. This statement was followed by a 55% increase in defense spending between 2015 and 2020, making China the world’s second-largest spender behind the United States (China’s defense spending is estimated at $260.8 billion in 2019). The significance of the Navy for the country’s leadership is reflected in its budget, which increased by 82%, reaching $57 billion. As a result, six shipyards across the country have lifted the burden of building an advanced fleet capable of dealing with the dominant US Navy. The construction of advanced warships is the implementation of the Chinese Dream, the vision of the current President for a powerful China which is respected home and abroad.

The result of this policy is astonishing.  In 2018 China became the country with the most warships on order, surpassing South Korea with 43.9% share in global orders. In February 2020, at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis, China fell to 4th place with a 35% share in global orders, a testament to the country’s industry dynamics. Despite the impressive armament program, it should be noted that a capable naval force consists not only of modern warships, but also as a key component consists of  well-trained crews who have a deep knowledge of the maritime environment. This knowledge can largely be taught in naval schools, but actual engagement with the maritime environment is also required. Seamanship is exactly that, the long-term contact with the sea and the valuable experience that a nation acquires from this contact. For many centuries China has become a land power by turning its back on the sea. The current leadership seems to have understood this historical mistake and tries to change it by turning the Chinese people back to the sea from their school years.

Today, the US Navy is the most powerful in the world as it enables the United States to demonstrate its power globally. At the same time, it protects peace and free navigation on the high seas.  It is a key contribution to world trade which is essentially maritime, and eventually to the global economy. Chinese officials occasionally admit that despite the Chinese Navy’s numerical superiority, it still lags behind technologically from the US Navy. Even in terms of tactics and training, the US Navy is a highly professional force tested in real war conditions as distinct from the Chinese which has not yet demonstrated its true value and capabilities in realistic conditions. However, the situation across the China Sea seems to be tilting in favor of the Chinese side as its naval forces are dramatically strengthened due to the proximity of the area of operations to the Chinese coastline.

Beijing’s growing military network is making it increasingly difficult for U.S. ships to sail safely into the disputed area to effectively support their allies. One of China’s main targets now is Taiwan which is considered Chinese territory. As a result, Chinaωstrongly opposes any attempt towards Taiwanese independence and that is the main reason behind China’s amphibious force, a capable force ready to invade the island at any time.The Chinese leadership seems to have fully recognized the domains in which it lags behind its main rival and is trying to fill the gap by developing more and more contemporary navy ships and continuous crew training in order to be ready to cope with a realistic conflict. Similarly, the United States is closely monitoring the progress of its most important rival for the world’s hegemony.

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Who Exactly Fights For The UN-backed Sarraj Government?

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The latest turn of the tide in the Libyan conflict ended in the forces loyal to the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj pushing back the Libyan National Army and establishing full control over the capital Tripoli and the surrounding areas. Coverage of these developments in Western media was shaped along the tune of justice being restored by legitimate forces. Is that narrative off-key, and what exactly are these ostensibly legitimate forces?

First and foremost, the recent successes achieved by the GNA were only made possible by military support provided by Turkey, who supplied Sarraj with drones, military advisors and Syrian fighters recruited among the Turkish proxies notorious for their criminal tendencies. Contrary to the narrative enforced by the West depicting the GNA militias as a legitimate regular army, in reality these forces are little more than a bunch of criminals and radical elements financed by the Turkish intelligence.

Knowing this, it makes sense that the GNA forces resort to any means, including those explicitly forbidden by the international humanitarian law. The GNA supporters, however, choose to ignore these crimes turning a blind eye to the violations of Geneva conventions committed both by the fighters and their backers.

Finding evidence of these crimes presents no difficulty, as the fighters make little effort to hide them. In fact, they often unknowingly document their own atrocities. Perhaps the most telling example is the video published on the official Facebook page of the militia named Tripoli Protection Force that features armed members of the group driving in a vehicle marked with Red Crescent symbols. The raid showed on video ended in capture of a number of people who were promptly declared agents of the LNA. The video is still online.

When the GNA militants are not busy driving medical vehicles, they engage in torture of civilians such as these Egyptian workers who were violently beaten and abused by the fighters. The Egyptian nationals had been working in Tarhuna before the town was captured by the militias loyal to the GNA.

UN expressed “deep concern” over the detention and torture of Egyptians in Tarhuna, urging the authorities in Tripoli to investigate the incident. In its turn, Egypt took offense and claimed that it will launch an independent investigation, emphasizing that it is ready to make a strong response to the GNA aggression.

These examples are but a small part of the violations committed by the GNA militias. Despite the support it receives from the UN and its foreign backers, the GNA will not be able to contribute to a safer, stable Libya, unless it gives up on the radicals who do not abide by the law. It has long been evident for everyone except the GNA allies abroad.

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Sino-American Rivalry: Impact on South Asian Security

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The US-China relationship is an extremely complex one; it is driven by many different dimensions each dimension has got its own logic. The United States of America, being a dominant power of the world, has engaged itself with many nations throughout the world. Mainly it has engaged itself in those regions of the world from where it considers any entity could pose a threat to its interests as well as its dominance. Washington has remained an influential state because of its active involvement in most parts of the world for its national interest, particularly economic benefits. However, China being a re-emerging power, wants to influence the world through its engagement with more nations employing initiatives such as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or via economic engagement with various nations. However, the nature of relations between Washington and Beijing has changed ever since Donald Trump’s presidency. Under the Trump Administration, the US has shifted from viewing China as a strategic partner to a strategic competitor. There are multiple areas where Trump Administration has challenged Beijing, such as trade and economy, Asia-Pacific region, technology, Chinese military modernization, South Asian region, and Beijing’s pursuit for alternative global markets.

In this regard, the South Asian region assumes much importance when it comes to great powers politics such as the US and China. Over the time, the occurrence of events, incidents and initiatives such as 9/11 and Chinese BRI have added more significance to the region for great powers politics. On one hand, the incident of 9/11 provided a reason for the US to engage itself in the region actively, particularly Afghanistan, under the pretext of the War on Terror or security issues. On the other hand, active Chinese involvement through BRI compelled the United States to increase its influence by engaging with more nations in South Asia for containing China and its initiative. When it comes to South Asian security, three countries, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, hold much importance in determining the security of South Asia. The presence of American forces in Afghanistan after the incident of 9/11 has presented a dilemma for Beijing. Because it considers presence of the US troops at its backyard as a severe threat. In this regard, China wants the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan to fulfil its desires by engaging more actively with Kabul for its development and stability through BRI or other economic engagement.

Moreover, peace and stability in Kabul is Beijing’s fundamental interest because chaos in Afghanistan could trigger extremism, terrorism, and fundamentalism resultantly that will threaten not only the peace, security and stability of the region but can spill over into the adjacent Xinjiang region of China. However, Afghanistan is considered the “graveyard of empires” therefore, China does not want to risk its position by getting involved in Afghan affairs that are not in the interest of the people of the country. Similarly, China supported the “Peace Deal” between the US and Taliban representatives on February 29, 2020, in Doha, Qatar. After the US forces withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that China is going to deepen its involvement in Afghanistan further because it fears the return of Uygur militants in Xinjiang after a withdrawal of US troops. While the United States wants to engage India in the region to counter China, in this regard, since long, the US has been supporting Delhi in defense and trade ties to minimize the influence of Beijing in South Asia. As the US former Secretary of State John Kerry said that America wants to see India in a more dominant role in South Asia. However, American support towards India and giving it special waivers not only generate serious threats for China but also for Pakistan. Similarly, China and Pakistan have been trying to further strengthen their relations by increasing cooperation in multiple fields via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

As far as the American history about problem-solving of this region is concerned, it portrays bad picture where the US has the most significant stake in spoiling the regional peace along with generating various problems such as the birth of terrorism, gun culture, deaths and destruction, economic instability and many other issues as well. The emergence of gun culture and terrorism within Pakistan started after its alliance with the US during Afghan War and in War against Terror. It is mostly believed that the growing Sino-American rivalry is one of the primary reasons behind the worsening security conditions in South Asia. However, the friction between both countries could trigger new conflicts resultantly it would push the region into turmoil. Any misadventure created because of American support and favour to India and its policies of sidelining Pakistan and China in Afghan issue at this stage could further escalate the tensions among regional states resultantly invoking threats for the peace and stability of the region. In this regard, there is a dire need that both the US and China review their policies concerning South Asia and try to avoid conflict or misadventure for the sake of peace, stability and development of the region.

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