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Can Quad be Effective against Incremental Encroachment of China in Indo-Pacific Region?

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The ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ of China exhibited in South China Sea (SCS) is a serious concern not only to the countries directly affected by losing their influence  over overlapping EEZ, but also to rest of the world as China can exert illegitimate monopoly over SCS global Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC).  The countries directly affected do not have adequate muscle power to stand up to China; hence will have no choice but to succumb to one sided arrangement like China driven “Code of Conduct” (COC).  Chinese adventurism therefore needs to be checked by other prominent maritime powers in global interest.The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) which groups Australia, India, Japan, and the United States isoften being looked at as a potential instrument to check further adventurism of china in Indo-Pacific, however it currently does not have requisite teeth and traction.  The fact that China could convert features into military base in SCS despite presence of US Navy indicates that it does require global condemnation and effort of higher order to ensure that SCS does not become ‘China’s Lake’.  Although Quad may not have requisite teeth as of now, but there is no other alternative but to have potential arrangement of this kind between likeminded maritime powers having common strategic interests in Indo-Pacific Region in relation to freedom of navigation (FON), flights and rule-based order.

Differing Perceptions regarding Role of Quad

The Quad has repeatedly been subject of varying perceptions regarding its role, viability and prospects. Quad by nomenclature is a security dialogue forum and not a military alliance; hence the expectations from Quad have to be appropriately restricted for the time being.  Media often traces the Quad back to the expanded Malabar Naval Exercise in September 2007, that originated from the U.S.-India bilateral relationship, wherein ships of all four Quad countries participated for the first time, which was held off the Japanese island of Okinawa. It appeared to be a military and maritime arrangement revolving exclusively around four democracies. The initial impetus/usefulness of Quad it in fact emerged following the devastating tsunami in Indian Ocean back in 2004 as the so-called Tsunami Core Group, which came together to fashion a credible Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) response to it. This role for Quad, along with anti-piracy was noticed and counted, as such a role was much easier to sell to the world community including the stakeholders, which were excluded in the grouping.

Many give the credit of the idea of Quad to Prime Minister Abe who mooted his proposal within the framework of the “confluence of the two seas”, joining the Indian and the Pacific Oceans. This would enable a “broader Asia” to emerge, which would encompass the Pacific, where Japan felt that partnership with the US and Australia would be integrated into its ambit besides Japan – India strategic partnership. The four democratic countries of the Quad project themselves to be committed to an open and transparent network which “will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely”. Quad is therefore yet to acknowledge that it has a role to check the adventurism of China in Indo-Pacific region and could ever operate jointly as a military force for it. In fact, Quad has chosen to be diplomatically correct to say that it is not directed towards any particular country.

Problems/Divergences

To take the dialogue forward, the Quad needs to urgently converge existing divergences regarding their individual definitions of the Indo-Pacific. While Indian and to some extent Japanese focus would be to include western Indian Ocean touching Africa and Gulf countries along with the Eastern Indian Ocean, Northern and Eastern Pacific, which perhaps other members of Quad would see as the main focus of attention.

 All Quad members have different threat perceptions in the Indo-Pacific. This impacts their prioritization in dealing with challenges in Indo-pacific as well as the areas of focus. It also includes their approach towards dealing with flash points like SCS or upholding the freedom of navigation along the sea and air routes of communication, connectivity and rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific. An important issue for effective maritime security cooperation amongst the navies of Quad is while three of the navies (Australia, US and Japan) operate within NATO military alliance framework, India is not part of any military alliance, although a strategic partner of two of them. The trilateral dialogue between the three NATO allies is continuing since 2002 without India. India is the only country amongst Quad members which has unsettled land border with China; hence will have a different approach in dealing with China. This does create some apprehension in mind of the rest three partners as China -India relations keep fluctuating between tension and harmony with incidents like Doklam, Wuhan and reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir. This brings up the question of military decision-making by the Quad as a group.

The centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific has been emphasized by the Quad, hence their inclusion into it is another debatable issue, due to Chinese influence over them. There are differences within ASEAN in response to Chinese claim over nine dash line in SCS (based on its unilateral interpretation of history), between the countries which have overlapping EEZ and the ones not facing such problem. Generally, some of the affected ASEAN countries have occasionally raised a feeble voice against Chinese aggression (Philippines, Vietnam), expecting world powers to check Chinese adventurism, without themselves standing up against the Chinese might. They have generally tried to get the best of US and China without being seen to be taking sides. This has emboldened China to continue incremental encroachment in SCS and the region up to a point that it has become a global concern. China has also tried its best to deal with each of the country in this region on bilateral terms and lure/influence it through ‘Chequebook/Purse/Infrastructure diplomacy’.

Strengthening/Upgradation of Quad

It is being increasingly realized that equal participation of all four Quad countries in maritime security cooperation is crucial for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific region’. Between 2007 to 2017, meetings of Quad officials were extremely limited, that too at Joint Secretary/equivalent level. 2017 onwards it had four meetings, the last one being at Foreign Minister level, indicates the incremental seriousness of the countries involved in such engagement. Increasing convergence in focus and roles is also being noticed. In last meeting hosted by US earlier this year, besides ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ to ensure freedom of navigation; maritime security cooperation; connectivity; good governance; countering terrorism and proliferation; HADR; promoting a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific; and cyber security were some common areas of interest. Concerns like use of global commons in international water and nuclear adventurism of North Korea were also subjects of discussion. Consensus on centrality of ASEAN was also a sign of convergence.

The common focus of Quad to implement its idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific on a “rules-based” legal framework to secure freedom of navigation in the global SLOC in Indo-Pacific needs some introspection and strengthening. Three members of Quad namely Australia, India and Japan, have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOSIII), however US is yet to ratify the same. This ratification will be necessary to have a moral high ground to implement the same. It is still not sure that any legal framework can compel China to accept it in SCS in future, as it had rejected the PCA’s decision earlier. This is a serious global concern because China continues to make/improve infrastructure in SCS, with a view to convert features/atolls into military bases, expect others to accept them as islands and apply ‘Baseline principle’ under UNCLOS-III to claim its 200 nautical miles of EEZ to conveniently convert SCS into ‘Chinese lake’ over a period of time. If it is not resented by global community, it may lead to some restrictions like ADIZ on SCS which is a global SLOC.

Considering the prevailing international strategic scenario, China is reasonably confident that US or any other country will not use military force to dismantle their infrastructure made in SCS. It is also increasing its naval capability as part of its comprehensive national power (CNP)to make best use of inaction by other countries in Indo-Pacific. In this context it is necessary that Quad strengthens itself beyond Malabar exercises and forum for dialogue and gets some teeth in the form of maritime capacity building of its members, further improvement of interoperability and dominate choke points sensitive to China. Chinese adventurism of recent intrusion like Vanguard episode in Vietnam waters need to be taken seriously.

Quad members must continue freedom of navigation exercises and military posturing in Indo-Pacific as China continues to do so. Global community must continue to condemn Chinese encroachment in SCS and conversion of features into bases. These features should never be recognized as islands in consonance with PCA decision. If the strategic situation worsens there may be a need to position ‘UN Maritime Military Observers Group’ in future, which must be thought of, as prevention of accidental triggering of conflict is possible in a region having high density of combat ship on FON missions. Some of the countries whose EEZ is being compromised by Nine dash line claims must start speaking for themselves before expecting other powers to help them. The countries who have their SLOC passing through Indo-pacific should also be consulted in finalization of China driven Code of Conduct (CoC)as they also have stakes in SCS. Any action by any country to restrict freedom of navigation/flight or violation of rule of law must be challenged in UN Security Council. Support of other navies like France for free and open Indo-Pacific is  encouraging step in this direction. Quad in its present form may not be effective enough to check Chinese adventurism, but it certainly has potential to become one of the effective instruments to do so, provided the affected countries and the global community also plays its role against common concerns.

The author is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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