Rumors are rife in world diplomacy circles that the United States wanted to force the hand in the recent talks with North Korea held in Hanoi last March.
The US side, in particular, tried to achieve a broader definition of “denuclearization”, a criterion capable of simultaneously eliminating the missile network, precisely the nuclear one, as well as the North Korean facilities for chemical warfare.
At the end of March, a report informed that the United States had asked North Korea to remove the whole stock of fissile material and relinquish all bacteriological warfare programmes.
All this only in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Too much, considering the level reached by the previous negotiations.
Obviously, the North Korean delegation was certainly not very close to US requests, while North Korea’s deputy-Foreign Minister, Choe Son Hui, argued with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton because they created a strong “obstacle” to negotiations.
North Korea’s representatives in the Hanoi negotiations, however, stopped the talks because they had not the qualifications nor the political mandate to treat the issue of denuclearization with the United States in this “global” way.
Nevertheless, John Bolton, who is certainly not a great supporter of dialogue between the United States and North Korea, seized the opportunity of the block of negotiations. In the lack of a precise North Korean policy line, he asked for an overall, quick and absolute denuclearization, being well aware that this request could not be accepted by the North Korean delegation.
Again following Bolton’s policy line, the United States added to this request- which was hardly likely to be accepted – the total destruction of chemical and bacteriological weapons.
It is strange that,in Hanoi, experienced and skillful mediators conducted so tough negotiations, even naïve in their harshness.
Furthermore, the United States asked North Korea for news about a “secret base for uranium enrichment” near the Yongbyon facilities.
Finally, the United States also asked for a “statement of all nuclear activities” in North Korea, as well as a clear roadmap for denuclearization.
As if the matter were only in North Korean hands.
A management of negotiations that may probably be fine for US internal political purposes, but certainly does not favour any positive evolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.
In his last meeting with President Trump, however, Kim Jong-Un brought to Hanoi the sole promise of fully scrapping, in a short period of time, the Yongbyon nuclear research centre.
The United States, however, did not well understand whether the Yongbyon facilities to be closed regarded only the reactor that has been producing plutonium since 1980 or whether the closure offered by Kim Jong-Un regarded the whole plant, with its many centrifuges for uranium and reactors.
Some US analysts think that the Yongbyon facilities are still at the core of the whole North Korean nuclear system, while other experts believe they are “obsolete” and, hence, Kim’s offer is not particularly interesting.
Nevertheless, if there is nothing else besides the “obsolete” facilities, Kim Jong Un’s offer is meaningful and rational.
At the beginning of Hanoi talks, North Korea hoped that economic sanctions would soon be partly lifted, considering that all the UN Security Council Resolutions on the North Korean issue stated that it would be possible to re-examine the sanctions in exchange for clear progress on the nuclear issue.
North Korea, however, has already imposed a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests. It has also closed its nuclear test sites and has even started to destroy its missile test sites.
North Korea has even accepted a slow and progressive lifting of sanctions, in exchange for a step-by-step check of nuclear compliance.
From this viewpoint, the United States thought that sanctions really benefited it and hence they did not try to reduce them. Quite the reverse.
The United States must have thought that the more sanctions remain, the more North Korea is forced to negotiate.
Moreover, the Russian and Chinese proposals on the subject, developed within the UN Security Council, have always been blocked by the US contrary vote.
John Bolton’s and Mike Pompeo’s hard stance, however, was not matched by any immediate negative reactions from the North Korean side, as is customary in North Korea’s diplomacy. Nevertheless, three weeks after the crisis of Hanoi’s talks, the North Korean deputy-Foreign Minister, Choe Son-Hui, who enjoys Kim’s full confidence, said that his country “is not particularly interested in the current negotiations with the United States for denuclearization”.
Later, after the unexpected end of talks in Hanoi, the United States launched a defamation campaign against North Korea claiming, for example, that North Korea was secretly continuing its missile tests and that this new fact had stopped the US efforts at the negotiating table.
It is hard to understand how nuclear tests can be stopped “secretly”.
North Korea, however, has never promised to stop anything else but missile tests alone.
Hence, neither the uranium enrichment program nor the other biological and chemical activities have rightly ceased.
Currently, however, the door of negotiations still remains half-open.
Again in March, the pictures of the Sohae site, which is used for launching satellites, showed a significant pace of facilities’ reconstruction.
In all likelihood, despite Kim Jong Un’s promise to dismantle the site soon, North Korea still plans to keep and develop it, with a view to maintaining also some diplomatic pressure on the United States, but above all to organizing a new round of talks in the future.
The next important events will be the meeting between Donald J. Trump and the South Korean leader – already scheduled for April 11 – designed to break the ice between North and South Korea on the denuclearization issue and, on April 15, the North Korea’s great celebrations for the 107thbirth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, namely the “Day of the Sun”.
As some US analysts claim, should we go back to the strict and effective style of the old Six Party Talks?
Instead of a team that – at least in the US case – knows the complex issue of relations between the United States and North Korea only superficially, a new negotiation would be useful, with a traditional preliminary document and clear purposes.
A new negotiation that – as was the case with the Six Party Talks – makes the North Korean deputy-Foreign Minister and the deputy-Secretary of State, as well as many US experts of the academic and intelligence worlds sit around the negotiating table.
Certainly, we need to imagine that the negotiation is and will be long and complex.
Simple negotiations are those that do not succeed in reaching the goal.
Hence it will be useful to imagine multiple and different trade-off and mutual satisfaction factors, compared to a harsh and brutal negotiation on nuclear potential alone.
Kim Jong-Un knows all too well that what is at stake here is the future of his country, not only nuclear and bacteriological-chemical disarmament.
His nuclear and bacteriological-chemical network has led North Korea to be a member of the world decision-making system.
If this happens even in a shift from the nuclear threat to a major economic role, Kim Jong-Un will have won his bet.
If this does not happen, the United States shall not believe that North Korea will consume itself on its own. Quite the reverse.
In any case, it will be necessary to clarify that, as usual, the North Korean issue cannot be resolved with a mere bilateral negotiation mechanism.
The North Korean strategic role is a vital problem for Japan, for South Korea, but also for China and the Russian Federation.
Without a project that is good for all these actors, and not only for the United States, no peace nor disarmament will be possible. Not even for the United States alone.
China does not certainly want a nuclear, bacteriological and chemical system on its border that is, however, completely out of its control.
This is the real reason for the initial tensions between Kim Jong-Un and Xi Jinping.
Any increase in military tension in North Korea also spreads suspicions in China.
Nevertheless, it is a factor that the United States – in agreement with China – could use to reach North Korea’s denuclearization.
In particular, however, China wants neither a new war on the Korean peninsula – an interest obviously shared with South Korea – nor the US Armed Forces on its border, if North Korea’s complete nuclear demilitarization is achieved.
And if the United States and South Korea are still able to quickly reach the nuclear threshold in an initially conventional conflict with North Korea.
Hence, for China, high conventional and credible militarization for North Korea, but also with a non-negligible anti-US nuclear deterrent, albeit certainly not capable of setting fire to the whole Southeast Asia.
The same strategic paradigm largely applies to the Russian Federation.
It is not in favour of a demilitarized North Korea, which would be easy prey to the US-South Korea axis, and would not serve as a military buffer for Russia. However, it is even against a North Korea capable of threatening South Korea, and hence even the countries on its Northern border.
Therefore, considering the scenario of the negotiations between North Korea and the United States, the current stalemate will serve – after the Hanoi talks – to select the rational requests of the two actors and to shape the possible responses.
For example, the spreading of nuclear technology from North Korea to other States is a new topic to be included in the negotiation agenda.
As well as the decrease in conventional North Korean forces, to be linked to a rational decrease in the US and South Korean Armed Forces.
The five sanctions that North Korea wants to be lifted concern only the civilian economy and the well-being of the North Korean people, while we need to note that also Kim Jong-Un is put under pressure by the North Korean people and, even more, by his ruling class.
The North Korean Foreign Minister, Ri Yong Ho, said so explicitly: in fact, he has clarified that the North Korean power is aimed – in a rational negotiation – “at the complete dismantling of the Yongbyon site”.
Ri Yong Ho also added that the dismantling of Yongbyon facilities would take place “with the presence of US experts”.
Clearly Kim Jong Un has now China’s full protection.
Certainly China does not want to have the huge mass of migrants from North Korea within its borders and, above all, is not interested in a “sister” country which, besides threatening the United States and South Korea, forces even the great China to follow its policy.
This could lead the North Korean leadership to seek economic compensation at any time of the denuclearization talks.
Hence will the US leadership be able to finalise negotiations with North Korea without too many mistakes and wrong moves?
Will the US leadership be capable of actively involving China, Japan, Russia and South Korea in a radical dismantling of the North Korean nuclear capacity?
We do not know it yet.
Who would bell the China cat?
If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.
China’s tit-for-tat response
The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”
Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20.
Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.
India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.
India’s main problem
Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.
Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.
The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is thrice the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.
Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).
India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”
It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.
History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.
Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell
While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.
In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world. No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development. Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.
Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.
Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’. More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report. It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.
The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.
People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps. Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’: The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful. Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat. Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.
Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates. Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.
Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless. Wake up at 5am. Make bed — it had to be perfect. A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am. Then to the classroom. Back to the canteen for lunch. More classes after. Then dinner. Then more classes before bed. At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted. You never see sunlight while you are there, they said. That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.
The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.
Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China. If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case. Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds. He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president. President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi. His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified.
An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China. Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era.
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.
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