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East Asia

It’s when not if China’s Middle Eastern tightrope snaps

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China is manoeuvring to avoid being sucked into the Middle East’s numerous disputes amid mounting debate in Beijing on whether the People’s Republic will be able to remain aloof yet ensure the safety and security of its mushrooming interests and sizeable Diaspora community.

China’s challenge is starkest in the Gulf. It was compounded when US President Donald J. Trump effectively put China on the spot by implicitly opening the door to China sharing the burden of guaranteeing the security of the free flow of energy from the region.

It’s a challenge that has sparked debate in Beijing amid fears that US efforts to isolate Iran internationally and cripple it economically could lead to the collapse of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, accelerate Iran’s gradual breaching of the agreement in way that would significantly increase its ability to build a nuclear weapon, and potentially spark an unwanted military confrontation.

All of which are nightmare scenarios for China. However, Chinese efforts so far to reduce its exposure to risk are at best temporary band aid solutions. They do little to address the underlying dilemma: it is only a matter of time before China will have no choice but to engage politically and militarily at the risk of surrendering its ability to remain neutral in regional conflicts.

Israeli intelligence reportedly predicted last year that Iran’s gradual withdrawal from an agreement that Mr. Trump abandoned in May 2018 would ultimately take Iran to a point where it could create a nuclear military facility within a matter of months. That in turn could provoke a regional nuclear arms race and/or a pre-emptive military strike.

That is precisely the assessment that Iran hopes will persuade China alongside Russia and the European Union to put their money where their mouth is in countering US sanctions and make it worth Iran’s while to remain committed to the nuclear accord. 

The problem is that controversy over the agreement is only one of multiple regional problems. Those problems require a far more comprehensive approach for which China is currently ill-equipped even if it is gradually abandoning its belief that economics alone offers solutions as well as its principle of no foreign military bases.

China’s effort to reduce its exposure to the Gulf’s energy supply risks by increasing imports from Russia and Central Asia doesn’t eliminate the risk. The Gulf will for the foreseeable future remain a major energy supplier to China, the region’s foremost trading partner and foreign investor.

Even so, China is expected to next month take its first delivery of Russian gas delivered through a new pipeline, part of a US$50 billion gas field development and pipeline construction project dubbed Power of Siberia.

Initially delivering approximately 500 million cubic feet of gas per day or about 1.6 percent of China’s total estimated gas requirement in 2019, the project is expected to account with an increased daily flow of 3.6 billion cubic feet for 9.5 percent of China’s supply needs by 2022.

The Russian pipeline kicks in as China drastically cuts back on its import of Iranian liquified petroleum gas (LPG) because of the US sanctions and is seeking to diversify its supply as a result of Chinese tariffs on US LPG imports imposed as part of the two countries’ trade war.

China is likely hoping that United Arab Emirates efforts to stimulate regional talks with Iran and signs that Saudi Arabia is softening its hard-line rejection of an unconditional negotiation with the Islamic republic will either help it significantly delay engagement or create an environment in which the risk of being sucked into the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is substantially reduced.

Following months of quietly reaching out to Iran, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash told a recent security dialogue in Abu Dhabi that there was “room for collective diplomacy to succeed.”

Mr. Gargash went on to say that “for such a process to work, it is essential that the international community is on the same page, especially the US and the EU, as well as the Arab Gulf states.” Pointedly, Mr. Gargash did not put Russia and China on par with Western powers in that process.

The UAE official said the UAE envisions a regional order undergirded by “strong regional multilateralism” that would provide security for all.

Mr. Gargash made his remarks against the backdrop of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a multilateral security arrangement in the Gulf that would incorporate the US defense umbrella as well as an Iranian proposal for a regional security pact that would exclude external players.

Presumably aware that Gulf states were unlikely to engage with Iran without involvement of external powers, Iran appeared to keep its options open by also endorsing the Russian proposal.

The various manoeuvres to reduce tension and break the stalemate in the Gulf put Mr. Trump’s little noticed assertion in June that energy buyers should protect their own ships rather than rely on US protection in a perspective that goes beyond the president’s repeated rant that US allies were taking advantage of the United States and failing to shoulder their share of the burden.

Potentially, Mr. Trump opened the door to an arrangement in which the United States would share with others the responsibility for ensuring the region’s free flow of energy even if he has given no indication of what that would mean in practice beyond demanding that the United States be paid for its services.

 “China gets 91 percent of its oil from the Straight, Japan 62 percent, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships…,” Mr. Trump tweeted.

China has not rejected Mr. Trump’s position out of hand. Beyond hinting that China could escort Chinese-flagged commercial vessels in the Gulf, Chinese officials have said that they would consider joining a US-backed maritime security framework in the region that would create a security umbrella for national navy vessels to accompany ships flying their flag.

Chinese participation would lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive regional security arrangement in the longer term.

China’s maritime strategy, involving the development of a blue water navy, suggests that China already de facto envisions a greater role at some point in the future.

Scholars Julia Gurol and Parisa Shahmohammadi noted in a recent study that China has already “decided to take security concerns in the (Indian Ocean) into its own hands, instead of relying on the USA and its allies, who have long served as the main security providers in this maritime region… If tensions continue to escalate in the Persian Gulf, Beijing may find it has no other choice but to provide a security presence in the Middle East.”

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

Ongoing India China Confrontation in the Himalayan Region

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China and India are two of the most populous countries in the world with ancient civilizations that date back over 4000 years. Since independence, the two countries have enjoyed cooperative diplomatic and trade relations. However, the undertow of territorial disputes and several border skirmishes have kept the relations strained. The relations between China and India became tense fifty‑eight years ago, when beset by tensions over territorial disputes, China attacked India on 20th October 1962 after India attempted to define the borders unilaterally – this was when the world’s gaze was fixed on nuclear tensions between Soviet Union and the US. The attack followed a string of allegations with India accusing China of suppressing Tibetan regional autonomy, while China charged India with attempts to weaken its rule in Tibet.

Although the war over Tibet after a brief period of clashes was over soon with China emerging as the victor, the conflict over the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as a disputed border between China and India remained unsettled. The repeated clashes over territorial disputes and disagreements on demarcation of LAC led to increased militarization and deployment of troops in the region. This came with the consequence that violation of the imaginary and undecided LAC by either military during border patrols and surveys ignited standoffs. It also triggered military confrontations between the two whenever there was an increase in border militarization or development of logistical infrastructure close to the disputed border by either side. For instance, in 1975, clashes resulted in the death of four Indian soldiers when Chinese troops established camps in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector 10 km on their side of LAC. In 2013, President Xi Jinping at the BRICS Summit in Durban expressed his desire to settle the Himalayan border dispute as early as possible. However, again in 2014, China and India were face‑to‑face on LAC, when Indian workers started construction of a canal in a border village. In 2017, both militaries came to another stand‑off when Chinese brought heavy road‑building equipment near the Doklam region and started road construction in the disputed area.

Likewise, on 16 June 2020, a clear provocation that escalated into a military engagement between China and India in the rugged terrain of Galwan Valley seemed to be India’s infrastructure development in the disputed Ladakh region. Especially, the construction of the north‑south road leading to the airfield in northern Ladakh signified a threat for the Chinese. The construction of road appeared serious to PLA as it could transport troops and supplies to the disputed area and destabilize the LAC balance. The current turn of events that left around 20 Indian and some Chinese soldiers dead and many injured on both sides while several Indian soldiers taken hostage was a Chinese attempt to freeze the construction of Indian infrastructure. The deaths were the first fatalities in four decades from the simmering conflict along the 2000 km undemarcated LAC.

China expected India to put a halt to the construction projects in the disputed area like China did at the tri‑junction region, where China, Bhutan, and India meet, after the 2017 Doklam stand‑off as it was a critical geostrategic location for India. China asserted India to respect the LAC, as there was no clear‑cut demarcation of it and stressed on the need to develop a mechanism to resolve the border dispute. The Chinese Foreign Office spokesperson, after the military engagement stated that they want peace and tranquility, while upholding the so‑called Wuhan spirit of ‘mutual understanding, trust, and predictability’.

Both states have made several attempts at confidence‑building measures (CBMs) in the past. The first attempt to foster good neighbourly relations was signed in 1993 titled as “Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control in the India‑China Border Areas”. Later in 2012, another agreement titled ‘Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination in India‑China Border Affairs’ was signed. This agreement was designed to develop political contacts to prevent border incursions on LAC. In 2019, during the 14th meeting of the CBMs, both states reiterated their intent to actively negotiate the border‑related issues. Although CBMs were fortified but due to lack of attention on a conflict resolution mechanism a new cycle of tensions and accusations ignited, making peace at the moment a dim and distant possibility.

As tensions remain high, if the conflict escalates, it could do so to a point of no return as it could engulf the strategic partners on both sides. With both states adopting an aggressive stance, confidence‑building measures or a peace agreement would be unattainable. Although both states have expressed a wish to resolve the issue through dialogue, neither side has disengaged militarily. The satellite imagery obtained by Reuters showed that military build‑up is strong on both sides of LAC, as 30‑40 Indian vehicles and over 100 vehicles on the Chinese side were spotted near the Galwan River. Both sides have prepared troops and heavy weapons anticipating further escalation. Some analysts have argued that the strategic location of the conflict is in India’s favour, but one aspect not to be neglected here is that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) though not having as many bases in the Western theatre as India, does have a stronger backup, and PLA’s military is equipped with highly advanced capabilities; hence the balance of military power is heavily tilted in China’s favour. According to the 2020 SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, between 2010‑19 China increased military expenditure by 85 percent, while in comparison India increased it by 37 percent. The Indian construction projects that triggered the current conflict was an attempt to shift this balance in its favour, which has so far backfired.

However, to restore the balance of power, the Indian government could move further close to its strategic partner, the US. While the US would continue to provide diplomatic support, on the military front, an increase in military hardware sale to India would intensify a potential arms race in the region. Since the clash has buffeted the esteem of the Indian government that had surged to power on populist and nationalist sentiments India is likely to continue its military modernization pitching it as the need of the hour since the crisis is on‑going. It might even further engage with China militarily to diminish China’s growing soft power image enhanced with its role in the global pandemic crisis, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, and its technological ventures of covering the world with its 5G technology. India could be under the impression that military engagement would shake China’s reputation as a soft power turned into a military aggressor, and negate the impression of ‘peaceful rise of China’ while supporting the general precept that rise of a power cannot be peaceful in an anarchic world. Standing up to China would support India’s aspiration of becoming a regional power, if not global.

Nonetheless, the two advanced nuclear countries should realize the grave danger of a military confrontation. While both have agreed on diffusing tensions as early as possible, they might exert additional pressure on each other by increasing their military presence in the region, or through diplomatic means. In that case, the course of events would go beyond immediate recovery or spread to other domains of warfare. This is what the world least needs at this time as it struggles to save lives and economies from collapse in the wake of coronavirus crisis which continues to take its deadly toll across the world.

The situation should especially be a wakeup call for Modi government which has destabilized the region with a series of recent provocations against most of its neighbours. To give peace a chance, the agreements should be respected and both states should agree to develop a conflict resolution mechanism. For this India would have to give up its political chest‑thumping, which may be enchanting to a section of its domestic audience for the time, but continues to be an intolerable nuisance abroad.

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China’s Post-COVID strategy

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In the aftermath of the covid19 pandemic, the increasingly belligerent behaviour exhibited by China in South Asia and South East Asia and China’s imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, it is interesting, to see the tone of the English media of China. While there is not an iota of doubt, that for a genuinely comprehensive peek into the Chinese view on crucial political, economic and geo-political issues,  a perusal of the Chinese language papers is imperative. The Global Times,the mouth piece of the Communist Party is important, because it covers the views of Chinese academics, strategic analysts who through their opinion pieces provide a deep insight into China’s approach towards crucial economic and geo-political issues.

From the opinion pieces of the past few months, the Global Times one thing is evident, that with the US becoming increasingly unpredictable under Trump, it is virtually invincible. There is a growing belief, that Beijing is formidable both in the economic and strategic context. Strategic Analysts and journalists writing for the English speaking daily, have also tried to drive home the point, that Beijing is in a position to take on the US and its allies and that any attempt to isolate China would not be taken lying down. On the other, articles in the Global Times warn against Anti-China alliances, and also argue against why they will not be possible, pointing to the fault lines between the US and other countries. It has also not refrained from using strong language against countries like Australia and Canada by insinuating that they are acting as mere appendages of the US.

Aggressive stance vis-à-vis countries which blamed China for lack of transparency with regard to the outbreak of the pandemic

If one were to look at the newspaper’s labelling of countries which took a firm stand against China, with regard to blaming it for suppression of crucial information pertaining to the pandemic, Beijing was scathing not only in it’s criticism of the US, but also lashed out at Australia, for asking for an enquiry into the origins of the deadly pandemic. The newspaper labelled Australia as a mere appendage of the US, even dubbing it as a ‘poodle’ and ‘dog of the US’.

It has also warned other countries, especially Australia, of the economic consequences of taking on Beijing. An article titled, ‘Australia’s economy cannot withstand Cold War with China’ written by Wang Jiamei concludes by saying

‘…..If a new Cold War leads to a China-Australia showdown, Australia will pay an unbearable price. Given Australia’s high dependence on the Chinese economy, an all-around confrontation will have a catastrophic effect on the Australian economy’

The fact that Beijing did not take kindly to Australia’s criticism of China, and a demand for a probe was strongly reiterated by the point, that  China imposed sanctions on imports of certain Australian commodities like barley and suspended the import of beef.  China has also issued warnings to students and tourists to reconsider travelling to Australia.

This was done days after China’s envoy in Australia Cheng Jingye in an interview to an Australian media outlet had warned of strong economic repercussions (the envoy was referring not just to the impact on Australia-China trade, but on Chinese students pursuing education in Australia and tourists visiting Australia) if Australia continued to adopt a strong stance against China on the issue of an enquiry into the origins of the covid19 pandemic (Australia reacted very strongly, to this threat).

Beijing unsettled by emerging alliances?

One interesting point is, that while commentaries and reportage in the Global Times try to send out a message, that China’s rise is inexorable and that Beijing is not daunted by emerging alliances and the narrative of reducing economic dependence upon China,   it seems to be wary of partnerships and alliances which seek to challenge it. The newspaper repeatedly warns India, UK, Australia, EU member states about the perils of strengthening ties with the US. Even in the midst of recent tensions between India and China, Global Times tried to argue, that India would never openly ally with the US and if it did so, this would be damaging. An article in the Global Times states

It won’t be in the interest of India, if it really joins the Five Eye intelligence alliance. the role of a little brother of the US within a certain alliance is not what India really wants.

The article also tries to dissect differences between US and India over a number of issues, which are not wrong, but what it forgets is which two countries do not have differences over strategic and economic issues.

Strong language against Canada

It is not just US, Japan, Australia, EU and India, Global Times has also adopted an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Canada. An article in the Global Times, ‘China-Canada ties wane further as Ottawa becomes Washington’s puppet over HK’ dubbed Justin Trudeau was in pole position of bootlickers castigating him for the measures he has taken, after China tightened its control over Hong Kong via the imposition of National Security Law. Steps taken by Trudeau include suspension of the extradition treaty with Hong Kong and a decision to end the export of sensitive military items to the region.

Cracks in the bilateral relationship had begun to emerge between Canada and China, after Canada detained CFO of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition warrant (in the end of May, a Canadian court had ruled that Wanzhou could be extradited to the US much to the chagrin of the Chinese), while Beijing in return had detained two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavlor (both were charged with espionage in June 2020). It would be pertinent to point out that Beijing has signaled it’s displeasure with Canada  by reducing imports of Canadian products like pork and canola oil.

Conclusion

While Beijing itself is becoming more aggressive and belligerent, it can not expect other countries to stick to their earlier position on crucial strategic issues. While it is unfair to assume that The Global Times can cover the fact is that China is on the defensive, because it is for the first time that other countries are finding common ground in the strategic and economic sphere. While the results may not come overnight, partnerships are likely to concretize and gather momentum, because Beijing seems in no mood to give up on its hegemonic mindset and patronizing approach. Yet, other countries and regional blocs also need to have a clear vision to counter China and divergences over minor issues will not help. It is true, that a zero-sum approach vis-à-vis China is not beneficial, but for that to happen Beijing too needs to act responsibly, which seems doubtful given its behavior on a number of issues.

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East Asia

Why does the Dragon do what it does

Moaaz Awan

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The recent stand-off between China and India has been the headlines around the world, especially since the stand-off went ugly with 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number (probably less than 20) Chinese soldiers losing their lives in a vicious hand to hand combat. Since then, nationalistic sentiments in India are running high with immense public pressure to account for the Chinese for what happened in Galwan Valley. In order to understand the motives behind the recent clashes, one has to go back to 1962 or even before that.

This is not the first time that tensions along the LAC (Line of Actual Control) have flared up and definitely this is not the end of such events. Strategically, what was true in 1962, is true today. The real bone of contention is still Aksai Chin. Aksai Chin is the Dragon’s hanging sword on Delhi, which can be unleashed anytime keeping India continuously in a state of passive defensive. As long as China adheres to its strategy on Aksai Chin, it will always have the strategic initiative, and India’s “great power ambition” will continue to lay in the abyss of the Indian Ocean.

Aksai Chin indeed was a part of the State of Kashmir but since Kashmir already was being fought over between India and Pakistan and the region being far from both India and Pakistan was inaccessible to both claimants. Beijing saw an opportunity and with tacit approval from Pakistan, went ahead to control this “Sand Sea of China” which is the literal translation of Aksai Chin in Turkic.

Aksai Chin is strategically very important for China. It is the only possible land route that connects China’s Xinjiang Region to Tibet. China’s G219 Highway and the New Tibet Railway Line both pass through Aksai Chin. If there was not to be an Aksai Chin, the Chinese had to cross the hard terrain of the Kunlun Mountains to connect China’s two big landmasses. In 1962 when China took the initiative to cross the LAC, Beijing had several things on its mind. Firstly, it had to secure Aksai China so that a land link between Xinjiang and Tibet can be established. Secondly, China knew that controlling the heights over India is going to give it a long term strategic advantage and through it, it could always keep the initiative in its hands, keeping Delhi in a defensive position for an unprecedented time in the future. Thirdly, it wanted to support Pakistan which was having its own problems in the Kashmir sector. In case of any future Indo-Pak conflict, China would be in a better position to intervene. Lastly, and most important of all, Beijing wanted to ensure no future disturbances along the LAC. The main objective of the 1962 War was made very clear by Chairman Mao at the Xiangshan meeting: “At least 30 years of peace must be guaranteed.”

One may wonder that what does thirty years of peace do. What merited the risk of crossing over the LAC by the Chinese? The answer is rather simple: Integration of Tibet! Tibet was having internal problems and especially after the Dalai Lama fled Tibet it was getting harder for Beijing to keep it under control, but that couldn’t be possible unless and otherwise New Delhi would be completely knocked out of the Tibetan game and this is exactly what the 1962 War did.

Some analysts believe that instead of focusing on Aksai Chin which is a rugged piece of land, China should’ve gone for the Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call “Southern Tibet”. The area is also much richer in natural resources than Aksai Chin. The point made then by Beijing was that Arunachal Pradesh was a more difficult terrain to be defended plus the aim was to stabilize the whole of Tibet, instead of just Southern Tibet. Another interesting reason why Beijing kept mum about Southern Tibet was that it was the “Granary of Tibet”, the absence of which meant that Tibet had to rely on Beijing for its basic necessities. Another well-calculated move by Beijing to reign in Tibet.

All along the 1962 War, Beijing was clear of its objectives. It was not expansionism that drove the war but rather strategic interests. The war was initiated by China, and China itself took the initiative to end it. It was clear to the Chinese planners that any War with India had to be swift, decisive and must set the tone for future engagements. That is why after the PLA took over control over large swathes of land across the LAC and the “McMahon Line”, then quickly retreated back to the “McMahon Line”. Since the battleground is usually too cold for battle, the PLA had only a two-month window to launch an offensive

Prior to the war, at the Beijing Xiangshan meeting in which it was decided to fight the 1962 War, Zhou Enlai specifically instructed that “logistics must be done well, and we must never increase the number of casualties due to logistical factors like in the Korean War.”

Learning on the lessons of 1962, India unilaterally decided not to build any infrastructure in the region surrounding the LAC, fearing that the same infrastructure might be used by the Chinese to come into the Indian mainland. Since now New Delhi is ascertaining its regional and global power, it is constructing new roads and infrastructure along the LAC and China is clearly not happy with India changing the status quo. Previously, the status quo maintained gave Beijing a strategic advantage. One border issue had pinned India for decades, wasting a lot of India’s national power, and has allowed China to develop with peace of mind for decades.

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