It was precisely the clear failure of the meeting held in Hanoi between the North Korean leader and President Trump, which accelerated North Korea’s search for a meeting with the Russian Federation and later with all its traditional regional allies.
In the talks with President Trump, in particular, Kim Jong-Un failed to lighten the economic sanctions against his country. This is the political and strategic theme at the core of the North Korean issue.
Firstly, Kim Jong-Un wants Russia’s consent to its denuclearization project, which consists in the gradual lifting of sanctions in relation to the process of relinquishing his nuclear capacity.
It is exactly the request that Kim Jong-Un made to President Trump and that the US President refused.
According to North Korea, the lightening of sanctions should also be connected to an international economic aid program.
A roadmap that has long been supported by the Russian Federation.
In the absence of US reliable support for the bilateral negotiations with Kim Jong-Un, said roadmap could lead to Russia’s direct entry into the North Korean denuclearization process.
The North Korean leader also wants to balance – with Russia – its traditional relationship with China.
He also wants to internationalize the North Korean nuclear issue to increase pressure on the United States.
It should be recalled that, within the UN Security Council, Russia voted Resolution No. 1718, which reaffirmed and resumed the North Korean sanctions against the 2016 nuclear tests. It also largely voted against North Korea in all the 21 UN Resolutions concerning North Korea.
It may have been a mere external aggregation vote on a topic of international resonance, albeit without particular importance, but the North Korean issues are fully at the core of Russian interests.
In all likelihood, Russia has no intention of supporting a nuclear and autonomous country on its border and on a maritime axis of the utmost importance for Russian geopolitics.
It does not even want to evaluate the additional clout of a small nation that can increase its importance in bilateral negotiations, precisely thanks to its nuclear capacity.
For Russia, the North Korean issue can still be resolved by eliminating the US nuclear protection for South Korea and Japan, with a view to denuclearizing North Korea as well.
Simultaneous denuclearization processes controlled by a body such as the Six-Party Talks, which could also result in an autonomous organization for collective security in East Asia.
Hence, Russia does not want a Korean peninsula with nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, it wants the North Korean nuclear capacity to keep the US and South Korean ones away, seen as a direct strategic threat to Russia’s Eastern territories.
Furthermore – like China -Russia wants above all a stable North Korea.
It would be terrible for both Russia and China to deal with such an economically and socially destabilized North Korea that could not even defend them from a nuclear or conventional attack from South Korea, supported by the US bases in Japan and in the rest of the Pacific region.
Or to face the humanitarian and migration disasters of the North Korean populations, looking for survival in China or Russia.
For Russia, a nuclearized Korea is even more independent of China and this is very important for Russia.
Russia has long been cherishing no illusions about China and wants an efficient buffer state in the Korean region.
At legal level, the Russian Federation still recognizes North Korea as an autonomous party to the NPT, considered that Russia has always regarded all the countries that produced and tested nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967 as members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Hence, Russia considers North Korea -as well as Israel, India and Pakistan – “non-nuclear countries”.
Russia, however, does not deem the North Korean arsenal unlawful, but it wants also the “non-official” nuclear countries to abide by the NPT rules.
Hence the denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula, in particular, remains inevitable for Russia.
This is a primary goal also for China: in fact, the THAAD anti-missile battery deployed by the United States in South Korea in July 2016 can do little against North Korean missiles but, coincidentally, it is deadly for the Chinese ones.
Furthermore, in the Russian logic, South Korea cannot be regarded as a non-nuclear country, considering that it uses the US nuclear umbrella.
For the time being, however, the Russian Federation may offer little to North Korea, in the absence of an explicit bilateral military cooperation treaty.
In fact, the 2000 Treaty between the two countries, which replaced the 1961 one, has no provision concerning military support.
Conversely, the Treaty between North Korea and China envisages Chinese aid if a third country attacks North Korea.
In this case, however, China does not seem to fully agree, considering the signs that its diplomacy is currently sending.
Finally, what about depriving North Korea of its nuclear umbrella, possibly after a treaty with the United States?
Many think that nuclear protection for North Korea could come from China itself and the latter could even offer a technologically better nuclear umbrella than the North Korean one.
Nevertheless, if the United States left South Korea, shortly afterwards South Korea and Japan would produce – on their own – their nuclear arsenal always targeted against North Korea, China and Russia.
Hence, Russia’s mediation solution could be the most likely and rational one in the future: Russia wants the North Korean stability, with or without its own nuclear umbrella.
Russia could also support the idea of recognizing North Korea as a “small nuclear State”, in line with China, which supports a reduction, but not an elimination, of the North Korean nuclear arsenal.
Hence Kim Jong-Un’ stable regime guarantees the reliability of the North Korean border with the Russian Federation – an essential problem for Russia -thus avoiding the huge flows of migrants from the South to the Russian territories.
In this case, also the United States would avoid putting into operation all the nuclear weapons that South Korea could host.
However, let us revert to Vladivostok, the venue of the current Summit between North Korea and the Russian Federation.
Almost certainly, there will be no written documents between the parties.
In spite of sanctions, Russia will continue to need North Korean manpower, while North Korea has long been asking Russia to build the long-planned automotive infrastructure on the border.
Russia, however, wants denuclearization, albeit with the strong multilateral guarantee of North Korea’s border security and stability. Nevertheless Russia is also interested in a resolution of the issue alternative to the one proposed by the United States, which we do not know when will step back into the spotlight.
In fact, in 2017, Russia proposed a roadmap to reduce tension on the Korean peninsula – a proposal also backed by China at the time.
Russia’s and China’s double freeze envisaged that North Korea would stop its nuclear and missile tests, while the United States and South Korea would have to eliminate or, at most, reduce joint military exercises significantly.
A proposal that can be renewed.
Last autumn, within the UN Security Council, Russia had raised the possibility of reducing sanctions against North Korea in exchange for a drastic and autonomous denuclearization of the country.
Certainly, although no joint documents or statements were issued in the Vladivostok Summit, Russia and North Korea want North Korea’s nuclear disarmament to take place gradually and also with US simultaneous positive moves.
Furthermore, for Russia, there are no predictions or signs of political stability regarding the US Presidency.
Nevertheless, for obvious geopolitical reasons, Russia wants above all the stability of North Korea.
The United States also believes that Kim Jong-Un was convinced to hold a dialogue by the threat of further strengthening sanctions, but in fact Kim Jong-Un’s new policy line is not born of fear, but must be seen within a larger project.
Nevertheless, if – as expected – the sanctions against North Korea reached a peak, Russia could support North Korea’s economy also on its own.
Indeed, the talks in Vladivostok tackled a wide range of economic and humanitarian cooperation issues.
Obviously, Vladimir Putin told Kim Jong-Un that he would report to the USA about the main topics of the meeting held in Vladivostok.
While the strategic problems in the West are evident and particularly important for Russia’s economic and political stability- considering the issues of Crimea and of the relations with Turkey, as well as the US and NATO deployment of forces on the border with the Russian Federation – it should be recalled that Vladimir Putin is particularly interested in controlling his Eastern borders, which shall protect Russia’s future economic and strategic development.
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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