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South Asia: Balancing Great Power Competition with Strategic Stability

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Against the backdrop of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the impending US elections, the last few weeks have seen both the US and China exchange a growing level of allegations against one another. These include President Trump’s repeated allusions to the Coronavirus as the ‘Chinese Virus’ as well as the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s own claims of the virus having originated in the US. This blame game over the origins of the ongoing global pandemic belies a serious lack of cooperation between these two global powers that would otherwise only benefit the world at large. However, what’s more dangerous is the realization that these accusations are essentially part of a worsening trend that has seen this great power rivalry extend to additional spheres with little to any indications of receding. In effect, reverberating through some of the world’s most divisive geo-political fault-lines such as the fragile strategic balance that is already under threat in South Asia.

This is evident in the latest back and forth between the two powers where recent US media reports have hinted at China conducting secret nuclear weapons tests in contravention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty(CTBT),as well as its own moratorium on nuclear testing. Citing an upcoming report from the US State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC), these allegations were first published in the Wall Street Journal followed by an unequivocal rebuttal from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The allegations being that China; due to increased activity at its Lop Nur test site, as well as its alleged attempts at interfering with the monitoring activities of international agencies, may be carrying out low-yield nuclear weapons tests as part of its attempts at expanding its strategic weapons arsenal.

Whereas the official AVC report does not amount to a direct accusation on its own, the very fact that it raises such allusions against the backdrop of the growing strategic mistrust between both countries points towards the addition of a very public and dangerous dimension to the US-China rivalry. This holds all the more importance considering that the US, since releasing its last Nuclear Posture Review (NPR 2018) as well as its official doctrine on Nuclear Operations last year, has itself emphasized the importance of developing and incorporating low-yield nuclear weapons in restricted battlefields and/or theaters of operations. The recent deployment of the US’s new W76-2 SLBM for instance, stands as a highly pertinent case in point. As such, the US has itself increasingly emphasized the suitability and usability of such tactical nuclear weapons in smaller regional conflicts which it has increasingly come to consider as manageable and even winnable.

Furthermore, considering how the NPR 2018already communicated the US’s unequivocal refusal to ratify the CTBT, such accusations against China – and even against Russia last year – are indicative rather of the US’s own desire to withdraw from the CTBT. This for instance has been evident in the growing criticism being leveled against the CTBT by influential Republican senators such as Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio. Hence, coupled with the US’s growing emphasis on nuclear war-fighting, as well as its much vaunted modernization of its nuclear weapons systems under President Trump, these developments represent a far cry from President Obama’s decade old vision of a world without nuclear weapons built on restraint and gradual disarmament.

However, the fact remains that the US in so candidly outlining its growing strategic rivalry with China (and Russia) risks setting certain precedents which pose far serious and more immediate risks for the world at large. These risks include upending the precarious strategic balance between nuclear armed India and Pakistan, both of which have yet to sign the CTBT, let alone ratify it. This holds all the more importance considering that both India and Pakistan, on top of their own decades’ old animosity, have become increasingly embroiled in this great power rivalry.

For instance, the US and China’s respective and highly publicized cooperation with India and Pakistan– particularly following the US-India and Pak-China Nuclear deals – are indicative of the strong politico-economic and strategic ties which both these powers have individually cultivated with the two South Asian rivals. Be it the primacy awarded to Pakistan in China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the form of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), or the key role being played by India in containing China as part of the US led Quadrilateral Framework (Quad);both instances represent some of the most recent iterations of how this great power rivalry has unfolded in this particular region over the last decade.

However, considering that both India and Pakistan have themselves just nearly avoided a dangerous escalation following the Balakot/Rajauri incidents from last year, extreme care is required from both the US and China to not let their own rivalry feed into the already fragile situation in South Asia. A region whose escalation dynamics and strategic balance is already closely modeled along the precedents set by the world’s great power rivalries. In fact, considering the influence which the US and China have now come to increasingly exert over India and Pakistan respectively, both powers have instead an opportunity to find some common ground over incentivizing greater strategic stability within this particularly volatile region. Especially concerning the looming specter of nuclear war, there exists a rare opportunity for both the US and China to work towards leading and enacting more stringent arms control mechanisms instead of repeating some of the most dangerous and destabilizing trends from the height of the last century’s Cold War.

Considering that the global economy is still in the process of recovering from the last 18 month’s US-China trade war, and with major alliances being reshaped by the intensified maritime competition between both their navies (especially around the Indo and Asia-Pacific regions); the fact that the US-China rivalry continues to permeate through to all facets of International Relations presents serious risks for international peace and stability. Especially in a time where a black swan event like the COVID-19 pandemic is already forcing governments to radically re-prioritize their domestic and external policies, both the US and China have a rare chance of working together instead of opening up new fronts in their all-encompassing rivalry. Be it over greater strategic arms control, or more concerted efforts at helping eradicate an unprecedented global pandemic, leaders on both sides owe it to the world to offer at least some semblance of a vision where both powers can work together towards a greater good.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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New Wars

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Twentieth century was a century of great events and developments in every part of human life. The century is marked by the deadliest wars, deadliest weapons and unprecedented interconnectedness. The destructive power of A-bombs and the interconnectedness that transformed world into a global village infused traditional wisdom of conflict resolution with great confusions. New conflicts demanded new solutions. Globalization transformed the traditional theatre of conflict; war.

 War in twenty first century has acquired a whole new character. State which was once the almighty Leviathan has lost its monopoly over violence, its erosion of monopoly over violence from globalization transformed the character of war. Wars of today are not fought between states rather there is network of state and non-state actors which includes mercenaries, private security companies, hired thugs etc. Globalization has unleashed a plethora of problems by undermining state sovereignty. Globalization which was supposed to encourage cosmopolitan politics and cooperation ended up creating more divisions.

Mary Kaldore, professor at London School of Economics, is among the scholars who have acknowledged the impact of globalization on the character of war. In her book, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, she highlights this change in character of war.  Highlighting the difference she wrote that new wars are different from old wars because of who fight these wars, for what reason these wars are fought, how these wars are financed and the way these wars are fought. Old wars were fought by states, financed by states, were waged for ideological purposes and battles were the defining character. However, in new wars; actors are networks of state and non-state actors, which are to a greater extent privately financed and direct confrontation between opposite forces is rare. Kaldor is of the view that this change in character of war is caused by globalization. Kaldor is of the view that this transformation is a consequence of globalization and disintegration of state.

 Along with globalization, clash of symmetrical opponents can destroy the world. Advent of nuclear weapons has changed the traditional military logic. In fact, any war according to old military logic is simply not beneficial anymore. War between nuclear powers will leave neither party at benefit. Since the costs of such victory cancel the benefits it holds. Avoiding direct war serves the political interest better than waging one. This change in military logic is evident from the change in tactics of wars of today. Today’s wars are fought through Guerilla and counter insurgency tactics are the tactics. Majority of the conflicts involves one state and one or more than one non-state actor. These are battles between wolves and shepherds where wolves attack the flock while shepherds try to save the sheep.

However, it is not the change in military logic and innovation of new types of weapons that have transformed the character of war. Rather transformation in politics is the defining element of this change. Politics of ‘new wars’ is Identity politics which is very different from politics of old wars.  Old wars were largely driven by ideological politics whereas new wars are driven entirely by identity politics. In words of Professor Kaldor, “identity politics is about right to power in the name of a specific group whereas ideological politics is about winning power in order to carry out a particular ideological programme”. Globalization prompted groups to securitize their identity. War for these actors is either a mean for keeping their identity or claiming in lands in the name of that identity.

 Another dimension of problems caused by globalization for the concept of war is proliferation of capitalism. The ideas of capitalism and free market motivated such actors who saw potential for profit in war. These actors established private security firms and were up for grab for the highest bidder. Companies like Titan and Blackwater are profit-maximizing companies whose only motivation is the accumulation of wealth. These institutions induced the concept of war with further complexities and legitimacy of violence further degenerated. These developments underline the need for a new conceptualization of war. To address these complexities and set the basis for future exploration, Kaldor defines war as a “mutual enterprise” rather than a “contest of wills”. The reason illustrated by Kaldor is that the latter makes the elimination of enemy the ultimate objective of war whereas former suggests that both sides are interested “in the enterprise of war rather than winning and losing for both political and economic ends”. Although it is very difficult to discern what means one employs for what ends, the protracted conflicts all around the world and the industry which these wars fuel paints a different picture a picture very close to the concept of war as mutual enterprise rather than a contest of wills.

War in nuclear age, where symmetry in capabilities will, eventually, lead to MAD, cannot have the same character it once had. Mankind frightened by the destructiveness of these weapons and compelled by their natural instinct to clash is trying to fight the new wars with new weapons according to old principles. This is commendable but not practical as this undermines the capabilities of new weapons by considering them just another weapon of war. Concepts of limited war show the appreciation of this reality. There political, technological and economical developments highlight the need for evaluation of old ideas and encourage the need for new ideas. As the aphorism goes “modern problems require modern solutions”, wars of today are modern and they require modern solutions as the traditional ones are not adequate enough.

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SCO: Potential and Challenges to Regional Integration

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The modern system of the world is facing the state of imbalance as it passes through the phase of change and evolutionary development. Globalization has emerged as a main trend in international relations and deepens the interdependency between countries of the world. The rapid increasing interdependency contributes for countries to get close one another and to protect their interests. The desire of extending economic and trade activities, access to capital market and the contracts for investment are encouraging countries to work together and to cooperate. The cooperation for economic activities, trade, transportation, information, communication and transmission are making the countries and regions unite.

Regionalization has emerged as a new form and process of interaction among the countries of the world. Many countries are striving to establish a system of cooperation with their neighbors to enhance their potential and also to facilitate each other for solution regional issues. Thereby, the regionalization has taken diverse form of regional integration including the establishment of multinational regulatory system and flexible model of cooperation and partnership in different areas and at different levels. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)is an outstanding example of regionalization and hybrid and new mixed model of interstate multifaceted cooperation.

SCO established in 2001 to meet the objectives of regional security and stability. Since the establishment the organization continued evolutionary path of multifaceted and multilateral cooperation. It does not desire to achieve a specific target level of collaboration, but it move systematically along the path of finding the common attribute in resolving the regional issues. The SCO also has potential of unique perimeters, new opportunities and directions of further development in the areas of security, economics and other mutual interests. The organization comprises of 43 percent of world population and 25 percent of global GDP. Similarly, it covers 80 percent area of Eurasia. Although the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a young organization than the other international associations but it has the ability to achieve mutually beneficial solution of political, economic and security issues and it also leads to accumulation of unresolved issues of the region. However, the size never conflates with influence and effectiveness. In fact, the SCO is also facing hamstring by major regional economies and powers with their own interests in the region and mistrust between member states.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is often stated as a club of autocrat powers. The members follow the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. However, China and Russia adhere this principle rhetorical basis but not in reality. Both the countries have history of interference and violence of neighboring countries. The member states rely on the principle to push back at Western and local civil society effort to promote responsible governance, human rights and democratic norms in the region. Since the formation, the organization holds a broad goal of fighting against terrorism, extremism and separation. Furthermore, the convention of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization invokes the principle of United Nation charter to help clock the organization’s founding document with international legitimacy identifying all three equal threats to state security, public order and the safety of citizen. The member states also have commitment to share information about terrorist activities and threats and to make request to act against individuals or organization. Subsequent declaration of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and agreements of the member states have simply added to the list of principles and their responsibilities. Since the surveillance of new technology the member states moved beyond the simple method of information exchange to best practice of monitoring and tackling.

On the other hand, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has had very little achievements to strength domestic security despite the convergence of member states. The RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) based in Tashkent Uzbekistan has been coordinating to combat these three evils Terrorism, Extremism, Separation). The RATS provides a platform and services to member states particularly Central Asian States of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for sharing intelligence but it made very little progress. Furthermore the RATS shares intelligence with member states but the terrorist threats are increasing.

Since the SCO framed, the high hopes of diplomatic relations, effective economic and security cooperation were made by the founding members. It was also expected that the organization may bring regional cohesion to Central Asia and it would create great opportunities for the regional states of mutual trade and economic activities, and it will lead towards security promotion of the region. The founding partners of the SCO had ambitious plan for the transforming the organization in to a cohesive bloc with political and economic integration. There was also a hope that the organization may counter influence of EAEU and CSTO and will maintain its own influence in the region. But Russia wanted to dilute Chinese influence within the organization by advocating its expansion in to south Asia and other neighboring states.The SCO has organized many joint military exercises and efforts but could get any significant level of achievements because they were symbolic and political moves. To encounter any kind of security crisis and military operation in the region, there is a need of political logistical and operational system. For example during the unrest in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the organization delivered an anodyne statement for peace; security and stability, additionally, China and Russia were hesitating to get involved. While, the other states and powers tried to play their role to tackle the crisis.

China and Russia are the primary drivers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but have different visions for this organization. Although they share common interest of regional stability within the organization but at the same time their geopolitical interests pull them in different directions. These differences are a big question mark, how the organization would achieve their objective and would evolve?  Russia thinks of SCO as a security to prevent encroachment by outside powers NATO, UE and United States, and also a tool to maintain its geopolitical domination on the region and less than a partnership in Central Asia.

 Since the post-cold war, the economic imbalance has increased between China and Russia. China is increasing its economic influence in Central Asia while Russia is worrying about its security issues. Moscow hopes that the Pakistan and Indian including in Shanghai Cooperation Organization may bind Beijing to more work for the security and stability of the region than to enhance its own economic influence in the region. As the issues of uncertainty in Afghanistan, Pakistan-India confrontation and instability on China-India border are a clear threat to the interests of all member states. China is also suspected about the Russian ability to act as the security manager in an area where china has invested and is investing billions of dollars. On the other hand, Beijing may not be able rely on extra regional powers to secure and prevent Central Asia from the security deteriorated environment. However, SCO has not made any mechanism or approach to play a decisive security role in Afghanistan post withdrawal United States and NATO force.

China thinks that economic activities and investment can mitigate instability. Shanghai Cooperation Organization also a tool to promote Chinese soft power and economic influence in Central Asia. Therefore, Beijing has been continued its investment in the region and through OBOR and SCO. Although the Central Asian States are receptive to these Chinese overture but they are also keen to prevent SCO to become an anti-western bloc because the states feel the need of Western powers to counterbalance their powerful neighbors. Moscow already has upended its relationship with West over the Ukraine issue, thus, in these circumstances; Russia has no other choice to acquiesce Chinese increasing economic influence in the region. Moscow may pull itself from the Chinese efforts to multiply its security role in the region. The current clash on border between China-India put Russia in to awkward position. Russia does not like tension between China and India but it suggests dialogues and appears to have little interest mediating. Russia never wanted that China convert SCO in to an economic and trade bloc while China never wanted that Russia transform the organization into a military alliance. It is hard to imagine that Shanghai Cooperation Organization may be able to deliver its original goals eradicate extremism, terrorism and separation through mutual cooperation because it appears with the major focus on economic integration across the Eurasian region.

Now the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is coexisting with other regional initiatives like OBOR, AIIB, CSTO and EAEU. Both China and Russia have expressed their intentions to work within these institutions.     Since the formation, the SCO is facing many structural and organizational challenges. All members have their own interests and values of independence and sovereignty, which are difficult to reconcile with collective security particular Pakistan and India, China and India have mutual mistrust and all Central States also have territorial issues with one another.  

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Possibility of an alliance in Sino-Russian Relations

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The defense ministers’ meeting of NATO member states was held in video format a few days ago (17/2/2021). During the period, the discussion focused on the topic of “China-Russia threat” and believed that a “global approach” should be adopted to curb China-Russia expansion.” At the same time, this meeting also attracted widespread attention from outsiders.

Senior Russian researcher, Vasily Kashin published an article in which he emphasized that when there is a risk of military conflict with the United States, China and Russia should immediately form a military alliance. And share the missile early warning data collected by themselves.

According to the article, Sino-Russian military technology cooperation has always been quite secretive, and because Russian companies have participated in the development of China’s ballistic missile early warning system, China and Russia are fully able to establish data sharing on this basis and establish their own global Missile defense network. Russian media subsequently reported on it and said that Russia has repeatedly proposed the formation of a Sino-Russian military alliance, and even President Putin himself has conveyed the idea of ​​an alliance with China.

It should be noted that the containment and suppression of China and Russia by Western countries do not stop there. To provoke the territorial sovereignty of China and Russia, US aircraft and warships have already on the doorstep of China and Russia, carrying out under the banner of freedom of navigation (FON).

Intensive reconnaissance activities, this behavior has seriously threatened the national security of China and Russia but also undermined global peace and stability. To build a global encirclement of China, the United States is also actively wooing other countries to join its anti-China front in an attempt to reorganize the eight-nation coalition forces to contain China.

It can be said that Western countries are pressing on with China and Russia step by step. As the US continues to escalate its suppression, the security situation around China and Russia will deteriorate again in the future, and the two sides may even break out head-on conflict.

Faced with the complex situation in the Indo-Pacific, China and Russia also need to strengthen cooperation in the field of national defense. After all, the two countries are originally a comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation in the new era. In recent years, the strategic mutual trust between the two sides has been deepening and several rounds of military exercises have been jointly conducted.

Therefore, the opinions of Russian experts are in line with the future development trend of Sino-Russian relations. As a friendly country, Sino-Russian relations will only continue to develop for the better, and the possibility of China and Russia forming a military alliance in the future is not ruled out. The Chinese people also have extremely high expectations for the future direction of Sino-Russian relations. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi once stated that Sino-Russian cooperation “has no end, no restricted zone, and no upper limit” (2/1/2020).

Foreign media believe that this means China’s non-aligned position or non-alignment Applying the Sino-Russian relationship again means that Wang Yi recognized the possibility of China and Russia forming a military alliance. Both China and Russia are peace-loving world powers and have always been committed to maintaining the peace and stability of the regional situation.

Therefore, even if a military alliance is concluded in the future, they will never follow a hegemonic line. In the final analysis, how China and Russia cooperate depends on changes in the international situation. Instead of worrying about the “threat” brought by the rise of China and Russia, Western countries should stop deteriorating the regional situation and work with China and Russia to maintain world peace and stability. Otherwise, this “heart disease” will never be eliminated.

It is worth noting that the Western countries, led by the United States, have a very playful attitude towards Sino-Russian cooperation. They have been using various means to sow discord between China and Russia in an attempt to prevent the establishment of a Sino-Russian military alliance.

However, the continuous deepening of cooperation between China and Russia is a historical development. The inevitable result of this is that no matter how obstructed by Western countries, Sino-Russian relations will continue to develop for the better, without any interference from external forces.

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