The 20th century ended on a high note for the Liberal-Capitalist world, with the fall of the communist states of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States as the single remaining, unipolar power of the world, asserting its national interests and objectives on states across the globe. The dawn of the 21st century saw the coming of the long and bloody, global war on terror with theatres of war across the Islamic world i.e. West Asia & North Africa, Central Asia, in South Asia as well as instances in Southeast Asia. This century has also witnessed the return of the Russians as an important player in these regions. However, one of the main causes of concerns in today’s geopolitical domain is the uncontainable rise of an aggressive and expansionist People’s Republic of China, under the helm of the dictatorial leader – Xi Jinping – considered to be one of the strongest, most assertive leaders of the communist country since Mao Zedong.
The Chinese Premier has previously managed to gather enough support among the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to win an important vote in 2018, through which the National People’s Congress permitted Xi to remain leader for life, by amending constitutional guidelines which enforced a two-term limit on its Presidents (BBC 2018). Since then, however, things in China have been going south for the CCP’s chosen one. While we may not talk a lot about it due to lack of information from China, the country and the leadership is in fact submerged in domestic issues in challenges. Being a dictatorial country with extremely low political and civil freedoms, much of the news in China is monitored and censored by the government; therefore, neither Chinese citizens nor foreign media outlets are privy to the happenings inside China. The communist government has alongside private citizens in the IT sector developed an entirely independent internet ecosystem, preventing outside/western contact and connections within China. These independent social media platforms provide Beijing with a backdoor entrance to conduct internet surveillance on its citizens. While this prevents western influence and contact with its citizens, it also prevents Chinese citizens from spreading ‘misinformation’ to the outside world. However, we know for a fact that the Chinese government is engaged in civil rights abuses against certain Muslim communities in the North-western autonomous province of Xinjiang, where – what may be over a million – Uyghur Muslim citizens are detained in mass detention camps, going through ‘re-education’ and to ensure citizens’ adherence to the CCP. We also know for a fact that the controversial National Security Law passed in Hong Kong undermines the 1997 One Country, Two Systems principle, based on which Hong Kong and Macau were returned to the Chinese by the British and the Portuguese.
The National Security Law is athwart to the cause for which all protestors and activists who have been staging events and raising their voices against Beijing’s excessive authority and assertiveness in the Special Administrative Region. Most recently, Jimmy Lai – the pro-democracy activist and founder of Apple Daily – was arrested on charges of collusion with foreign organisations and agents. The law makes even the mildest form of activism against Beijing a crime against the state. Infrastructure in China is also posing a major threat to citizens. Experts suggest that China has over 94,000 dying dams, with most of them built in the Mao era. The Guangxi dam collapsed on June 7 this year, hitting the nearby plains with some of the worst floodings it has experienced. The main cause of concern would be the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, which is also one of the dams at risk. The collapse of this dam could very well add tens of thousands of residents to the death toll, with over 500 million people living in and around the basin of the river. This is not all; many ranks among the CCP are unhappy with Xi’s management of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan. Due to this mismanagement, the entire world is experiencing a major economic slowdown, and China has been under the spotlight.
Therefore, the Chinese regime has, over the years, resorted to the political tactic of distraction, many a time through the use of coercive force. The People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA(N)) alongside the Chinese militia has been increasingly becoming assertive in the South China Sea and the broader Indo-Pacific region. It has boosted its naval capacity through the commissioning of the Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers, providing it with formidable naval air cover in the South China Sea, as well as giving it the strong arm it needs to flex against the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).The United States has regularly engaged in the enforcement of freedom of navigation in the sea through which trillions of dollars’ worth of cargo passes every year, with several naval exercises supported by aerial operations. While the Chinese are gaining a foothold in the region through the construction of full-fledged military bases on shoals and reefs, one should not forget the foothold that the United States already has in the region through its network of alliances and cooperation treaties with almost all the states engaged in the dispute against the Chinese. Amid high tensions in the region, Washington’s Pacific Command (USPACOM) very recently conducted naval exercises involving the USS Ronald Reagan Strike Group. “Integration with our joint partners is essential to ensuring joint force responsiveness and lethality, and maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said US Navy Commander Joshua Fagan, Task Force 70 air operations officer aboard USS Ronald Reagan(Goh and Navratnam 2020).
Tensions are also at an all-time high between New Delhi and Beijing. Over the night of 15th June, 20 soldiers of the Indian Army were killed in action in the Galwan Valley area of Eastern Ladakh sector. Since then, both sides have mobilised along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh as well as other areas along the International Boundary shared by the two Himalayan states. While talks have been taking place at both military and diplomatic levels, not much progress has been made toward de-escalation of build-up. The Ministry of Defence and the Indian Army has over the months made it explicitly clear to Beijing that India’s bravest will not stand down until the PLA withdraws from the LAC. The Chinese Communist Party and Xi speak of how the border disputes with India are of equal importance to the Chinese government as is the South China Sea dispute; both of which have portrayed Beijing’s aggressive expansionist policies. Beijing speaks of solving disputes through peaceful means and diplomacy, while the PLA flexes its muscles and threatens coercion through the conduct of live-fire military drills & exercises in Tibet. As per a report by the CCP’s People’s Daily, “the exercise … tested the coordinated strike capability of multiple units and put new equipment to the test in a combat situation”(Zhen 2020).
As such, China under Xi Jinping has gotten itself involved in several military disputes across the continent, from East Asia to the IOR. While several world powers critique its aggression, Beijing is engaged in establishing overseas military reach and capability through the construction of military bases and ports. China is attempting to gain a strong foothold not only in its backyard but also across the Indian Ocean Region and thePacific. The Chinese regime has been using its economic might (while it lasts) to coerce nations into granting the PLA and its several branches access to land suitable for the construction of bases. Some of the states that are being bullied by Beijing include of tiny Pacific island nations such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Tonga; South Asian countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are falling into Chinese debt traps and there already exists a PLA Base in Djibouti, with Gwadar in Pakistan another potential threat.
Pacific & Oceania
The United States has traditionally maintained dominance in the Pacific since the late 1890s when it acquired the Philippines as a protectorate from the Spaniard crown. It shared dominance in the region alongside the British in Southeast Asia. This dominance was challenged in the second world war, with the large-scale Japanese invasions of Southeast Asia with the intent of creating a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere ‘liberated’ from the grasp of Western colonial rule. However, this imperialist Japanese concept quickly faded away with the end of the war in 1945. Since then, the American Navy has been the undisputed power in the Pacific and the regions surrounding it.
However, with the onset of the 21st century, the Chinese have risen to a comfortable position of power supported heavily by its thriving industrial base and capacity. The world’s factory – China – has benefitted heavily from its ties with business organisations from across the world, all seeking a base of production with minimal costs and maximised profits. Since the late 1980s, China made commendable efforts in opening up its closed economy to the private sector – both domestic and international. 30 or so years later, China is second only to the world’s largest economy – the United States. This economic might has enabled the Communists in Beijing to assert their interests in its backyard – in the South China Sea and increasingly in the East China Sea.
In the South China Sea, Beijing has imposed sovereignty over vast territories, violating the sovereignty of all neighbouring states’ exclusive economic zones. The Chinese abide by a self-imposed demarcation on maps, called the ‘Nine-Dash Line’, which vaguely demarcate Chinese claims over a major part of the Sea and claim sovereignty over the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands. The Chinese justify this demarcation through attempts of connecting dots from ‘historical claims’ of Chinese presence in the sea. Beijing contests the sovereignty of Malaysian, Vietnamese, Bruneian, and Filipino exclusive economic zones. The Philippines has in the past brought the dispute before an international tribunal, which said that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources. The tribunal in The Hague, in 2016, said China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. It also said China had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands (BBC 2016). The aggressive expansionist policies adopted by Beijing are a major threat to the continuance and sustenance of an international, multi-polar world order, which threatens basic maritime norms – freedom of navigation. The South China Sea and the Indonesian straits to its south (specifically the Malacca) are one of the busiest transit areas in the world of commercial shipping, with trade worth over 3.4 trillion USD passing through annually. As such, the United States, Japan, and Australia have all expressed major concerns regarding the dispute.
As mentioned in previous paragraphs, China has been engaging in coercive diplomacy to acquire permissions to build military bases and ports in the regions surrounding the South China Sea. Beijing has its eyes on the Southern Pacific island country of Tonga. This region has not seen such ‘strategic competition’ since the island-hopping campaign of the second world war. As per reports by the UK based Oxford Analytica, the Chinese have four objectives in extending their foothold into the Southern Pacific island complex:
“One is to extend its security perimeter into a region hitherto the preserve of the US and its allies and to create a buffer between China and its neighbours.
The second is to press forward with its diplomatic contest with Taiwan. Of the 17 countries worldwide that still have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan and none with Beijing, six of them are Pacific Island states – the Solomon Islands, Palau, Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands.
Beijing’s third objective is to gain access to the natural resources of the South Pacific and its islands, especially fish and timber. China is already the largest trading partner for most of the islands and has about $30 billion invested among them.
The fourth objective is to draw the South Pacific nations into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative by selling them infrastructure, especially port facilities to benefit Chinese commerce and the long-range deployment of its navy”(Manthorpe 2019).
The entrance of the Chinese in the South Pacific is an especially alarming event for the Australians. Canberra has been actively speaking up against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and is a long time critique of Beijing’s expansionist policies. Being a member to QUAD, Australia regularly holds military exercises alongside India, the United States, and Japan to boost military-level cooperation and countering the growing Chinese sphere of influence in the region. However, bilateral and/or multilateral drills aimed at deterring PLA(N) influence will not be enough if Beijing were to set up a military base in Australia’s backyard. The only time that the Australians imposed national emergency and curfews was during world war two with the onset of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, which was also localised only to the areas surrounding the northern portcity of Darwin which came in the crosshairs of Japanese aerial bombers. The establishment of a Chinese base in the South Pacific region will put all of Australia in a state of constant alarm for the first time since the second world war. In order to access the Pacific, the Chinese have to navigate through the American-friendly waters of Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan. However, a base in the Southern Pacific islands can provide the Chinese with direct access into the Pacific and threaten American and Australian presence in the oceanic region.
Tonga is an island country with a population barely creeping over 100,000 citizens and a GDP of about 450 million USD. Beijing in 2006 provided the country’s government with 108 million USD in loans for reconstruction and infrastructure development after notorious rioting in its capital – Nuku’alofa. This loan amounts to nearly 25% of the tiny nation’s GDP, thereby placing itself in a cycle of debt. This makes the 171 island country a prime target for the Chinese to set up a military base, in return for covering Tongan debt to Beijing. As per the Lowy Institute – an Australian think-tank, the Chinese have paid 1.5 billion USD in loans and aid to the several island nations of the Southern Pacific since 2011, enabling Beijing to employ its debt-trap tool of coercive diplomacy. China uses the Belt and Road Initiative to better facilitate trade between member-states; and at the same time uses debt-traps to take over ports for uses of both civilian as well as military nature, for example – Hambantota in Sri Lanka (Perry 2019).
Another island country in the region was previously under the Chinese scanner for establishing a PLA base on its soil. East Timor is placed in a strategically relevant position, right off the Wetar Strait – one among the four major straits of Southeast Asia. The Chinese proposal to build and operate a surveillance radar facility on East Timor’s north coast was made in December 2007 but was viewed with suspicion by senior East Timorese officials who consulted with the US and Australia before rejecting the project(Dorling 2011). These radars and surveillance could be used by the PLA to survey American and Australian Naval manoeuvring in the region and provide Beijing with valuable Naval intelligence and a pair of eyes looking down over the Australian continental shelf. Since then, the Chinese have shifted their attention to other countries in the region, such as Vanuatu. As per reports from 2018, Beijing had approached the government of the 80 island country to establish a permanent military base and presence in the region. Vanuatu also declined Beijing’s unofficial proposal to set up a base on their soil, citing their non-aligned status and disinterest in militarisation. Canberra and Wellington have both expressed their concern about the growing Chinese sphere of influence in the region and have jointly decided to invest in these countries, in order to prevent the poverty-struck region from slipping into Chinese debt-traps. All of this comes as the Chinese regime’s attempt to project power beyond its traditional backyard. To ensure that this expansion remains in check, Australia and New Zealand have in the past practised a policy of ‘strategic denial’ – ensuring that no foreign, unfriendly power gains influence in the region that it maintains as its own ‘patch’. The Australians have also set up committees for providing financial assistance to Pacific island countries in the fields of both infrastructure development and trade, promising amounts up to 2.5 billion AUD (Köllner 2020).
The Americans and Australians currently have in place an arrangement with Papua New Guinea, another nation in the Indo-Pacific region, which permits their navies access to and dock at the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island, in return for its development. The governor of the island claimed that the signing parties had failed to deliver on their promise, resulting in the federal government announcing its intention of reviewing the deal. The Chinese almost secured a deal for ports in PNG earlier, however, the deal fell through at the last minute. Experts say that in a post coronavirus world with devastated economies, PNG will be eager for aid and assistance and there is a possibility that they could turn to China for help(EurAsian Times Desk 2020). At the same time, research vessels of the PLA(N) are being sighted more often in the region, mapping the deep waters of the Pacific and the many straits connecting the Indo-Pacific. Military analysis of GPS satellite data from 2019 revealed two Chinese research vessels entered PNG’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) north of Manus Island, just weeks after US Vice President Mike Pence announced a joint redevelopment of the ageing Lombrum naval base.(Greene 2019). The ABC News Network in Australia interviewed a retired two-star admiral James Goldrick, who once headed Australia’s Border Protection Command believes Chinese mapping of the world’s oceans is now on the same scale as Soviet maritime operations during the height of the Cold War.
“It’s very similar to the pattern of Soviet Union behaviour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and the Soviets’ knowledge of the world’s oceans was really quite enormous. Chinese naval intelligence gatherers will not be shining a (GPS satellite) beacon, they’re not required to by law, and of course, it’s quite possible some of the government-owned ships aren’t always radiating on their beacons to show where they are and who they are.” (Greene 2019)
Indian Ocean Region
As of today, Beijing has just one overseas military base in Djibouti – a country which also hosts American, French, Italian and Japanese military bases, some of which also host British, German and Spanish troops. India has for longhad a goal of gaining a foothold in the strategically important Horn of Africa, which was realised in 2018 when Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and PM Narendra Modi agreed to host Indian troops in the Japanese base in Djibouti;with the objectives of countering the threats faced due to piracy activity as well as to keep in check aggressive Chinese expansionism – through its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy in the IOR. However, New Delhi is looking to solidify its position in the region and is on the lookout for establishing a permanent Indian military base in the strategically placed African country.
In Djibouti, the PLA and the PLA(N) hold the fort at a 590 million USD support base, located 5 km west of Djibouti City. The support base is placed right next to the Chinese operated Port of Doraleh. Lying next to the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, connecting to the Indian Ocean, the strategically placed base provides China with the means to secure its major commercial shipping interests coming from or via West Asia and North Africa. An estimated 60% of China’s oil imports find their origin in this region – another reason justifying the purpose of the establishment of an overseas military base. Djibouti is involved in several other Chinese developmental projects, including sub-projects of the BRI such as the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway project. The setting up of this base also gives the Chinese the clout they are seeking, establishing themselves as an international economic – and now also – a military power with overseas bases. It provides a central command in the region for the conduct of peacekeeping operations in Northern Africa and also counter-piracy ops in the Arabian Sea off the Somali coast.
The establishment of this base comes as a discomfort to the West, who have traditionally maintained a presence in the region of such comparable scale. The United States and its allies are all concerned with the presence of a PLA base within 10 km of their own. Worries about espionage are constant and so is the ‘tit-for-tat’ game of accusations. In 2018, the US Department of Defense accused the PLA Support Base of using laser weapons against pilots attempting to land in Western bases, adding on that in one case, two pilots on a cargo plane suffered minor eye injuries as they approached to land. China has rejected the allegations, saying they are “inconsistent with facts”(BBC 2018).In 2017, the PLA held their first-ever live-fire exercises from their first-ever overseas base. The exercises saw the deployment of the PLA’s Marine Corps, using a wide array of personal weapons and elaborate weapons systems – from pistols to ICVs to mortar and artillery. Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said:
“The troops had to be on combat alert at all times because of the region’s complex political conditions and Djibouti’s geographic importance. The PLA troops based in Djibouti should be able to protect themselves and resist attacks from terrorists, pirates, local armed forces, or even foreign troops” (Chan 2017).
Beijing-based military commentator Zhou Chenming said the high-profile drills were a message to local militants “not to harass” the PLA troops.
“Since the political situation in Djibouti is very unstable, the troops need to let local armed groups know of their combat strength. They need to tell them that the Chinese forces are there not only to set up the logistics base but must also be able to deal with all kinds of security challenges” (Chan 2017).
The PLA support base in Djibouti since last year has been going through a phase of construction and renovation to expand its capacity to handle military ware and equipment. Through open-source intelligence, analysts have been able to find new developments at the base. The naval pier along the base has been extended to +330 metres in length on both sides, which is more than enough to help facilitate China’s latest additions to its Navy – the Liaoning and Shandong aircraft carriers, Type 071 and the under-construction Type 075 amphibious assault vessels as well as Destroyers. This new development increases the capability and overall lethality of the base. Construction material and equipment was also seen along the large Heliport in the centre of the base, suggesting that the Chinese are looking into further expand their hangars and improve on existing helicopter facilities. The construction of a new quay may also suggest that the PLA may expand on the number of in-house piers at the base(Sutton 2020).
China’s Belt and Road Initiative also extends into India’s staunch terror-supporting neighbour Pakistan via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, stretching between Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China and all through the length of Pakistan – from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Baluchistan. The CPEC ends at the civilian port of Gwadar in western Pakistan which is being developed by Chinese and is under the operational control of the China Overseas Port Holding Company, leased to the same company till the year 2059. Therefore, questions arise in New Delhi and indeed Washington as to China’s intentions with the deep-sea port. While Beijing denies any military or naval involvement in the project, sources report what seems to be a high-security compound being built by the Chinese, which some believe could support naval operations. From a Chinese perspective, it would be ideal to build barracks for a garrison of Chinese marine corps in the insurgent region to protect what is a major investment in Gwadar.The compound comes complete with sentry towers and pillboxes along with fortifications and high walls with barbed wire (Sutton, China’s New High-Security Compound In Pakistan May Indicate Naval Plans 2020).
However, it remains unclear whether Islamabad has handed over the operations of the port for the PLA(N) as well, considering that a majority of Sino-Pak agreements go unannounced to the public or are not available to the public. The port is protected by Pakistani soldiers stationed there to protect the hundreds of Chinese workers working on its development and construction. Gwadar would be of great benefit to the Chinese, not only because it helps strengthen its foothold in the IOR, but also because once completed and secured, it can act as the economic lane of communication which would free Beijing of its dependency on the Malacca straights. The CPEC would secure the roadways and railway transit lines of its energy resources coming from West Asia and Africa, and a naval base at Gwadar would ensure its safety. The mouth of the Malacca is under the keen eyes of the Indian Armed Forces’ Andaman & Nicobar Islands tri-services joint command which undermines China’s economic security in case of conflict. As of today, a blockade of Chinese commercial shipping would severely cripple Beijing, which depends on West Asia and North Africa for a majority of its oil imports coming via these straits.
It is known to the world that Beijing has been looking into the Maldives as a potential location for a sub-pen since 1999. However, these aims were side-lined and not given much attention until the arrival of Xi Jinping on the hot seat of the CCP. Fast forward to the year 2017, reports by Maldives based anti-corruption NGO Transparency MV suggest that the country during the administration of the Chinese puppet Abdulla Yameen leased the Feydhoofinolhu atoll (land area: 38,000 square metres) to Beijing for 50 years, for four million USD. As of February 2020, China has destroyed surrounding reefs to build a man-made island structure to expand the size of the island to 100,000 square metres: similar to what it does in the South China Sea (Spratly islands).
Open-source intelligence portals showed the presence of a lot of construction material and equipment on the new man-made portion of the island, along with fish farms on the existing shorelines (Francis 2020). The island is barely 1000 km from the South Indian coastlands and even closer to the Lakshadweep islands, posing a major security risk to New Delhi. However, since the coming to power of Ibrahim Solih, New Delhi has poured its resources unto Malé with several infrastructure projects and credit in a bid to counter Chinese expansionism in the region. At present, India is engaged in an array of projects in the Maldives including water and sewerage projects on 34 islands, airport redevelopment at Hanimadhoo, and a hospital and a cricket stadium in Hulhumale(Ramachandran 2020). The Indian Minister of External Affairs also recently announced India’s intention of funding the Greater Malé Connectivity Project, a 6.7 km-long bridge and causeway link that will connect the Maldivian capital Malé with the neighbouring islands of Villingili, Gulhifahu and Thilafushi. It also includes the building of a port at Gulhifahu and an industrial zone in Thilafushi(Ramachandran 2020). The Maldivian economy, however, remains in a grey area, drowning in a tremendous debt of over a billion USD to China. Perhaps New Delhi’s granting of credit to Malé could sway the Maldives to India’s sphere of influence in the region – a paramount interest for South block in New Delhi.
About 950 km to the northwest of the Maldives lies the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, with which India has had mixed relations. Sri Lanka’s former President and current Prime Minister – Mahinda Rajapaksa, has led the country into a Chinese debt trap. The long-time politician requested for loans multiple times, without any denial from Beijing. Loans were procured to build a major deep-sea port along one of the busiest sea lanes of communication of the world at Hambantota in the southern part of the island country. However, the 1.4billion USD worth project failed to attract trade and commerce, with only 34 vessels docking at the port. With the tremendous amounts of debt owed to China running the country deeper into the debt trap, the Sri Lankan government agreed to lease the port at Hambantota and 60 square kilometres of land surrounding it for 99 years, as repayment for debt owed to Beijing. The debt deal also intensified some of the harshest accusations about President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative: that the global investment and lending program amounts to a debt trap for vulnerable countries around the world, fuelling corruption and autocratic behaviour in struggling democracies(Abi-Habib 2018). With the Rajapaksa administration being voted out of office in 2015, the new government under Ranil Wickremesinghe had little choice but to comply with Beijing’s will. However, the Prime Minister also made it very clear to the world that Sri Lanka’s Port Authorities were in fact in a commercial joint venture with Chinese merchants and port authorities. Addressing a programme at London’s Oxford University on Monday, Wickremesinghe said some people are seeing “imaginary Chinese Naval bases in Sri Lanka” (PTI 2018). However, it remains unclear as to what Beijing’s intentions truly are. It is perhaps another move to secure sea lanes of connections that connect the Chinese mainland to its energy interests in West Asia and Africa passing through the straits of Malacca. Even if Hambantota remains a civilian project, access to it by PLA(N) assets such as frigates and submarines in the IOR could provide it with the resources these assets may require to extend the duration of operations in the region.
China is also present in the former war-torn state of Myanmar. China is notorious for using debt diplomacy as a tool to gain control over infrastructure assets. Tensions of the same have ensured that Myanmar reduced the amount of funds China has invested to 1.3 billion USD for the Kyaukpyu port project. The port, on the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal is not very far from Vishakhapatnam, the Indian Naval headquarters of the Eastern Command. This investment has the potential to act as one of the many pearls of China’s String of Pearls strategy in the IOR. The Kyaukpyu port will be an addition to China’s global Belt and Road Initiative, connecting the port to China by sea and also through a road link for which construction plans and agreements are being drawn up. Following Myanmar’s concerns of falling into a debt-trap, China will invest 70 per cent of the $1.3 billion while Myanmar will finance the rest in the initial phase(Patranobis 2018). This port could be of equal importance to Beijing as is the port in Gwadar. The Kyaukpyu port could further liberate the Chinese dependence on the Malacca strait for trade and commerce. Beijing will definitely push for the construction of an all-weather road to connect the port to China by road, similar to CPEC.
Many have believed that Gwadar would be the PLA’s second and latest addition to its overseas bases, if at all. However, without gaining much attention, Beijing managed to reach an agreement with the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan to establish a military/paramilitary base in the country’s eastern borderlands, near the Wakhan corridor.
The Chinese base is located at a strategically important region, placed approximately 12 km from the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan and 30 km from the Chinese border, at an altitude of 3860 m above sea level. The base is seen to have three main buildings and supported with storage facilities and/or garrisons. It is connected with a roadways system, however, not with power lines, which imply the reason why solar panels can be seen supporting what could be power generators, in the north-western part of the facility. The base also hosts a helipad in the south-western corner. It is guarded by a series of pillboxes and sentry watch posts along the multi-layered fencing/wall.
Beijing has formally denied the presence of its troops in Afghanistan in the past. However, the presence of a base in Tajikistan would imply its interest in entering the country to secure strategic interests alongside the Afghans. The Chinese have also in the past conducted joint military exercises with the Afghan Armed Forces in counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations. China has had a long-lasting border dispute with the Tajiks, claiming that Dushanbe is unable to grasp control over its border with neighbouring war-torn Afghanistan, and as a result of that radical Islamists have been causing troubles at the Sino-Tajik border. These Islamists – China claims – are the same who brew up tensions in the Xinjiang autonomous region and ‘poisons’ the minds of the native Uyghur Muslims with propaganda directed against the Chinese state.
While the international community worries about these developments, Beijing’s eagerness to have boots on the ground in this spot appears to stem from concern about the potential for unrest from Islamist Uyghur militants. An unknown number of Uyghurs are believed to have left their homes in the Xinjiang region in the last five years or so to join the ranks of militant groups in West Asia. Like other governments in Central Asia, China is uneasy about the arguably implausible prospect of those fighters returning to their native land(Eurasia Net 2019).
Being a former Soviet Republic, Tajikistan is party to the Commonwealth of Independent States – a multi-national organisation led by Russia to protect the sovereignty and improve regional ties between all former Soviet States. As such, Russia considers China to be ‘creeping into its strategic backyard’. Beijing is by far Tajikistan’s more generous creditor. At last count, the outstanding debt stood at around $1 billion, although this figure may be even greater depending on how one is counting. This lending has not been without its costs. In 2011, Tajikistan ceded territory to China in return for an unspecified amount of debts being wiped off the slate. Officials in Dushanbe have spoken little about this deal, but have sought when quizzed to sell it as a financially advantageous way to settle what had been a long-standing territorial dispute(Eurasia Net 2019).
As of today, it remains unknown whether Beijing has any interests in Afghanistan, other than protecting its domestic issues, i.e. the issue of Uyghur Muslims being rallied against the Communist Party of China.
The Chinese government under its dictatorial Premier, Xi Jinping- has adopted several aggressive and expansionist policies & stances across multiple fronts. It has decided to undermine the cruciality that its domestic policies hold in the eyes of its citizens and is constantly distracting them through an aggressive foreign policy. Being a totalitarian, communist state, China has also actively engaged in the censorship of social media and through the development of an independent internet ecosystem has managed to rid its citizens of viable access to the world outside of the Chinese borders.The People’s Liberation Army of China and its various branches have been one of the largest benefiters of Xi’s expansionist policies. Some consider the Premier to be the strongest man on the captain’s seat since the time of Mao Zedong.
Over the years, tensions between Beijing and Washington plus allies has been on the increase, and the American administration has decided not to take lightly China’s increasing aggression. The South China Sea has become one of the most important fronts for the cold war that is going on between the Americans and the Chinese, with neither willing to compromise on their national interests. The Pacific has always been America’s stronghold, since the end of the second world war. However, China has come to challenge that dominance by increasing the presence of its naval and air assets in the region. Up till now, vessels of the PLA(N) have had to steam through the sovereign waters of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to access the vast ocean. Beijing has been on the lookout for land to develop a naval base in the Southern Pacific Islands in a bid to gain direct access to the ocean. However, this effort has returned little to no results, with the Australians and New Zealanders investing in their backyard to keep out the risk of Pacific states falling to Chinese debt traps.
In the Indian Ocean Region, China has had much more success due to the comparative lack of western assertiveness in the region. The United States and its allies have a high military reach and presence in West, South and Southeast Asia, but have been unable to prevent marginal countries from making consequential deals with Beijing. China’s debt traps intensified some of the harshest accusations about President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative: that the global investment and lending program amounts to a debt trap for vulnerable countries around the world, fuelling corruption and autocratic behaviour in struggling democracies, says Maria Abi-Habib. Sri Lanka and the Maldives (and soon possibly Myanmar) have fallen for such deals with Beijing, handing over the Hambantota port and the Feydhoofinolhu atoll respectively under Chinese authorities’ control as repayment for deferred loans. China’s String of Pearls strategy in the IOR is unfolding with success – slow but steady: From the East African coastline in Djibouti, to a deep-seaport in the Arabian Sea at Gwadar, Pakistan; from the southern port of Hambantota in Sri Lanka to Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh along the Bay of Bengal.
The world has seemed to have taken a Chinese base in eastern Tajikistan with a pinch of salt. No one is asking what China’s intentions really are, being so close to the Afghan border. If it is really to prevent Uyghur escalation in Xinjiang, then one must ask: what is China doing in the autonomous region that it feels can radicalise the Muslim community against the Chinese Communist Party and the state?India’s interests in Central Asia are at risk, with Dushanbe’s Ayni Airbase and Farkhor Airbase being the Indian Air Force’s steppingstone into helping rebuild war-torn Afghanistan.
Perhaps China’s intentions and its outlook toward the world outside of its borders can be summarised into one line: “’Remember’, a Chinese soldier told a reporter nosing around a remote spot in eastern Tajikistan. ‘You never saw us here’”(Eurasia Net 2019).
Abi-Habib, Maria. 2018. How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up a Port. 25 June. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-sri-lanka-port.html.
BBC. 2018. China’s Xi allowed to remain ‘president for life’ as term limits removed. 11 March. Accessed August 15, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-43361276.
—. 2016. South China Sea: Tribunal backs case against China brought by Philippines. 12 July. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-36771749.
—. 2018. US accuses China of pointing lasers at its pilots from Djibouti base. 4 May. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-43999502.
Chan, Minnie. 2017. Live-fire show of force by troops from China’s first overseas military base. 25 September. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20170926034001/http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2112780/live-fire-show-force-troops-chinas-first-overseas.
Dorling, Philip. 2011. Timor rejected Chinese spy offer. 10 May. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.smh.com.au/world/timor-rejected-chinese-spy-offer-20110509-1efv1.html.
Eurasia Net. 2019. Tajikistan: Report confirms significant Chinese security presence in Pamirs. 19 February. Accessed August 23, 2020. https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-report-confirms-significant-chinese-security-presence-in-pamirs.
EurAsian Times Desk. 2020. Can Australia Lose A Strategic Naval Base To China In Papua New Guinea? 12 June. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://eurasiantimes.com/australia-could-lose-strategic-lombrum-naval-base-as-papua-new-guinea-could-review-deal/#:~:text=Australia%20could%20lose%20access%20to,Chinese%20presence%20in%20the%20region.
Francis, Xavier. 2020. Beijing Expanding Presence In Maldives Could Trigger Another Clash Between India, China? 13 May. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://eurasiantimes.com/beijing-expanding-presence-in-maldives-could-trigger-another-clash-between-india-china/.
Goh, Brenda, and Shri Navratnam. 2020. U.S. Navy carrier conducted exercises in South China Sea on Aug. 14. 15 August. Accessed August 15, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-usa-defence/us-navy-carrier-conducted-exercises-in-south-china-sea-on-aug-14-idUSKCN25B065.
Greene, Andrew. 2019. Chinese surveillance near PNG expanding as Australia and US begin Manus Island naval upgrades. 21 April. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-21/china-increases-surveillance-near-png/11028192.
Köllner, Patrick. 2020. Australia and New Zealand Face Up to China in the South Pacific. July. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publication/australia-and-new-zealand-face-up-to-china-in-the-south-pacific.
Manthorpe, Jonathan. 2019. China targeting Pacific isles for strategic bases. 10 June. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://matangitonga.to/2019/06/10/china-targeting-pacific-isles-strategic-bases.
Patranobis, Sutirtho. 2018. Too close for comfort: China to build port in Myanmar, 3rd in India’s vicinity. 9 November. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-myanmar-ink-deal-for-port-on-bay-of-bengal-third-in-india-s-vicinity/story-Lbm4IwOMuqrNvXGv4ewuYJ.html.
Perry, Nick. 2019. China Comes to Tonga. 10 July. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2019/07/china-comes-to-tonga/.
PTI. 2018. Sri Lanka rejects US claims, says no Chinese military base at port. 11 October. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/sri-lanka-rejects-us-claims-says-no-chinese-military-base-at-port/articleshow/66163389.cms?from=mdr.
Ramachandran, Sudha. 2020. Has India Won the Match Over the Maldives? 19 August. Accessed August 22, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/has-india-won-the-match-over-maldives/.
Shih, Gerry. 2019. In Central Asia’s forbidding highlands, a quiet newcomer: Chinese troops. 18 February. Accessed August 23, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-central-asias-forbidding-highlands-a-quiet-newcomer-chinese-troops/2019/02/18/78d4a8d0-1e62-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html.
Sutton, H I. 2020. China’s New High-Security Compound In Pakistan May Indicate Naval Plans. 21 August. Accessed June 2, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2020/06/02/chinas-new-high-security-compound-in-pakistan-may-indicate-naval-plans/#312210a1020f.
—. 2020. Satellite Images Show That Chinese Navy Is Expanding Overseas Base. 10 May. Accessed August 20, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2020/05/10/satellite-images-show-chinese-navy-is-expanding-overseas-base/#21ae60726869.
Zhen, Liu. 2020. China-India border dispute: PLA flexes military muscle with live-fire drill in Tibet. 18 August. Accessed August 19, 2020. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3097868/china-india-border-dispute-pla-flexes-military-muscle-live-fire.
5th Generation Warfare: A reality or Controversy?
In the truest sense, the constant repetition of phrase ‘the 5th generation warfare’ by our military leaders in every media conference has been true in the light of the exposition of the Indian sinister campaign against Pakistan in the ‘Indian Chronicles’. Those who were mocking the idea of 5th generation warfare in the context of Pakistan need to revisit their opinions, suggestions and warfare analysis.
Needless to say, Pakistan is facing enormous threats across its borders. The temperature has been red hot in the East and west borders of the country. Since the government of the Modi in its absolute fascistic endeavors took over the valley of Kashmir, the idea of the 5th generation warfare has become incredibly important to understand the volatile and emerging situations. While the India is accusing Pakistan regardless of its pathetic human rights violation in Kashmir, it seems that the war of demonization continues between these two arch-rivals.
Technically speaking, the dossier that Pakistan has recently published of its intelligence reports which clearly indicate the network of India that has been put in place to malign Pakistan and to come true in its ominous ambitions. In the light of the possible threats, Pakistan has to protect the CPEC projects from India and all the workings going on along the one belt and road project as we have undeniable evidence of the threats to the projects. Amid the rivalry of India and Pakistan, there is a play of world super powers as well as both America and China wants to expand their influence in the Asia, and Middle East.
If one belt and road initiatives stand tall in the face of the foreign funded attacks it would become the strength of the country in the near future. Along with protection of the OBOR projects Pakistan needs to understand the fact that it needs regional players to take part in OBOR extension to raise the stakes in it so that other regional actors will help making OBOR a successful economic venture. Since South Asia has been at the center of war from the last three decades only economic success is deemed to cut this root out. It will hopefully carry out people who have been radicalized because of the prolonged war on terror and the subsequent longest war of America in the Afghanistan territory.
The root cause of the Pakistani society of becoming violently rogue has been due to the pathetically designed strategic policies. Now, every effort on the part of the state must ensure economic progress. Wading into foreign wars, in the name of saving Islam has proved detrimental and counterproductive. The recent dossier that Pakistan has published largely identified this fact that the fallout of extremism and the wide network of India has exploited the regional issues, especially secessionists movements, in the country. It is time for our state to take responsible actions against these terror hideouts. Naming them or just publishing a dossier would not make difference until the whole infrastructure of the terror sites raze down to Earth.
The intelligence report that Pakistan has published certainly brought some results to the fore. One, India has been demonized subsequently more prominently in the Arnab Goswami case where it has been openly told to the world that India had fake surgical strikes inside Pakistan. This whole drama was just a political tactic by the BJP party to win in the general elections lately. This proved to the world that India has been maligning Pakistan and its interests in the world. But things are unsettling now. Time has come for India to take upon itself the weight of its sinister plans against a neighboring country.
It is also theoretically important for the state of Pakistan to really see the emerging trends in the lens of 5th generation warfare as military cadre has been pointing repeatedly in every media conference. If one see the attacks on the infrastructure of the OBOR, insurgents activities along the Durand line, and through the case of Aranab Goswami case, it is vividly clear that the nefarious activities in the guise of 5th generation warfare are true.
There are many political commentators in the Dawn Newspaper who have downplayed the visible threats of 5th generation warfare calling it a facade because of their abnormal understanding of the emerging situation in south Asia. That is why to understand a situation like surgical strikes that too fake one, one is left with no choice but to look up to the themes like 5th Generation warfare.
Until we expose India and our many other enemies through precise and strategic actions with the help of our strategic think tanks, Pakistan will not grow up economically because for economic ease peace is the necessary condition. The core strategy of Indian so far has been deploying maximum pressure upon Pakistan. It is true that India has been successful in some way to malign Pakistan. Visibly, Pakistan has made a lot of investment in the building up of the infrastructure for OBOR projects but apparently our intra-regional trade has been dipped to 7.4 down from 12.2 percent in 2011. It means we have been massively slowed down by India with the help of rising up temperature at the borders and planning attacks inside the country.
All in all, 5th generation warfare has been true in the context of Pakistan. To understand this, we need to connect the dots. The connection of Pakistani intelligence dossier, to attacks inside the country, to Arab Goswami case and to the Indian lab of disinformation proves the fact that 5th generation warfare is not lost on us. It is a time to rethink on these lines as we will have a tough time in balancing our economy through OBOR, opening intra-trade to maintain political instability in the country.
China’s quad in the making: A non-conventional approach
Politics of alliance can be traced to the ancient times of the East and the West. Since it affects the core interest and security of individual states, the leaders concerned seek for alliance partners in order to meet the threat they face and the gains they can expect from alliance. The U.S. has maintained its superiority in military and also created the largest alliance system in the world. Now seeing the rise of China as one strategic competitor in the 21st century, the U.S. has made all efforts to create a “quad” along with Japan, Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific. This leads to an inquiry into how China reacts to the containment led by the U.S.?
China has maintained the high-level of strategic partnership with Russia, Pakistan and now Iran. Yet they aim at strategic consensus, economic connectivity, mutual respect and equality in a challenge to any unilateral hegemony. Due to this, China’s version of the “quad” is more flexible and pragmatic in winning over states with different cultural, religious and ideological backgrounds. Yet the Biden administration has made it clear that it moves to establish a “quadruple” alliance along with Japan, Australia and India in order to insure the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific still to the U.S. favor. To that end, on March 12, the first summit among the four countries revealed their collective security talks on everything from vaccine distribution to fighting climate change, yet also including their viewing China’s efforts to modernize and professionalize its military as a strategic competition in Asia and the Pacific.
Only days after President Biden’s drive for a “Quad” in the Indo-pacific, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made his visit to China during March 22at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. This reveals the high-level quality of the relations between the two largest Eurasian powers and their agenda has deepened across nearly all dimensions of the comprehensive strategic partnership, such as from diplomacy and defense to economic and technology. The growing ties between China and Russia have aimed to establish a multipolar order that dethrones the US as the global hegemon. In light of the deteriorated relations between China and the U.S. alongside the EU, and between Russia and the Western bloc, the meeting is of strategic implications for China and Russia to consult regularly on the latest issues. Though not ready to forge a military alliance in a traditional way as indicated, China and Russia are actually confident in each other to meet any challenge of the world. The latest announcement that Russia and China would jointly construct a space station on the moon (ILRS) is another great leap forward in the establishment of what is described as the “Sino-Russian alliance in the making”. It clearly reveals that cooperation has become operationally more consequential than the frequently touted democratic partners between the U.S. and India.
During the 1990s,Joseph Nye warned the prospect of the “alliance of the aggrieved” coming from Russian and Chinese strong passion for national glory. Yet, it is very the awkward statecraft of the U.S. that has led China and Russia deftly to overcome conflicting national interests that should make them adversaries on the bilateral, regional and global issues. As Lavrov said prior to his visit, “the model of interaction between Russia and China is free from any ideological constraints. It is of an intrinsic nature, not subject to any opportunistic factors nor against any third countries.”
If the Sino-Russian strategic partnership is seen as the “strategic alliance”, the solidarity between China and Pakistan has been termed as “batie”, referring to “brothers in ironclad”. It is true that China’s normal relations with Pakistan started in 1951 and since1962, the bilateral relations have been transformed into a de facto alliance regardless of the differences in religions and ideologies. Cooperation has covered nearly all aspects from politics to economic and from military to foreign affairs over the past decades. Diplomatically, Pakistan has committed to one-China policy while China has made all endeavors to support its sovereignty, security and stability. Geopolitically, the two sides have worked closely on the joint projects like JF-17 aircrafts, civilian nuclear power plants and the peaceful settlement in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led NATO presence in the war-torn land is seen as a threat to common interest of the two countries and the stability in South Asia as well. Accordingly, Pakistan isseen as one of the key strategic partners of Beijing’s global links, along with Russia and North Korea.
Additionally, in China’s security and development agenda such as the BRI, Pakistanis sure to be a vital partner in light of the decades-long friendship and its location in South Asia near to Strait of Hormuz which links the Middle East. China has invested heavily in the region while it depends on oil, gas and many other energies. To that end, the project of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been expected to enhance the strategic connectivity between the two sides to a new high-level strategic convergence. It is in a broader term, alliance forms when states have common interests and strong consensus to pursue them. For example, China, Russia and Pakistan have shared compatible interests in a constructive and inclusive solution to end the civil war in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan through agreements on the formation of a coalition government with the participation of the Taliban movement.
Now an inquiry is whether China along with Russia and Pakistan would move toward a Eurasian bloc including Iran. On March 27, Chinese FM Wang Yi formally visited Iran, yet what China seeks for in the Middle East is not a traditional alliance like the NATO or the “Quad” in the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. has driven for. Rather, as Beijing reiterated, China acted to persuade the countries concerned to stay impervious to external pressure and interference, to independently secure its own interests in light of the regional peace and stability. Accordingly, China wants to project itself an image as a peaceful power unlike the U.S. and its allies which aim to pursue the exclusive privileges and unilateral interests in the Middle East and beyond.
During Wang’s visit, “the plan for China-Iran comprehensive cooperation” was signed with a view to taping the potentials for enhancing economic and cultural cooperation in a long run. It is said that a 25-year agreement would be able to upend the prevailing geopolitical landscape in the West Asia which has for so long been subject to the United States. Moreover, Iran has forged a de facto alliance with Russia and a strategic cooperative partnership with China. Yet, this plan is essentially a large-scale economic development agenda for Iran which has been illegally sanctioned by the United States. To that end, China and Iran vowed to support mutually on the issues related to their core interest and major concerns, including general opposition to any hegemon dictating international affairs. In effect, China has urged that the United States should first take a step to lift unilateral sanctions against Iran, and return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), instead of making unreasonable demands on Tehran.
Some people have argued that the interaction of China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran can everywhere outline new geopolitical vectors, which must be taken into account by the U.S. and its allies. It is also true that without the political involvement of Pakistan, China and Russia, the peaceful settlement of the crises in Afghanistan are quite unthinkable. First, China still follows its long-term principleof non-alliance in foreign affair. Second, though stronger economically, China is a new external power with limited knowledge of the region. Considering the prospect that a high-profile deal with Iran may have been met with some backlash from the Gulf states that traditionally see Iran as an adversary, a plan involving economic cooperation is more pragmatic and necessary. Politically it is wise and rational that China-Iran plan fits within its five-point initiative to achieve security and stability in the Middle East, such as mutual respect, equity and justice, non-proliferation of nuclear weapon, collective security and common welfare.
In sum, advancement of China’s quad requires even more focus and attention nowadays. In light of this, the best thing for China to do is to make sure a long-term stability and prosperity in the entire region. For sure, China has pursued its diplomatic goals in accordance with its ancient culture and contemporary grand mission.
UK–Russia Security Dialogue. European Security
Authors: Andrey Kortunov and Malcolm Chalmers*
This conference report outlines the main findings of the workshop on ‘European Security’ organised by RUSI and the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in February 2021 as part of the UK–Russia Security Dialogue. The dialogue is a proven format that has provided an opportunity for RUSI and RIAC to bring together experts from the two countries to discuss key questions, including sensitive security issues, at a time when this kind of interaction is the exception rather than the rule.
UK–Russia relations have become increasingly strained over the past decade, notably from 2014 following Russia’s actions in Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, which together marked a turning point in the bilateral relationship. In the subsequent years, there have been a series of efforts by Western European leaders, including from the UK, to reset relations with Russia. Despite these efforts, relations have continued to deteriorate. Against this background, the prospect for a reset of the sort that was pursued between the US and Russia in 2009 seems, at present, dim.
Given this environment, the focus of the current dialogue workshop was on how to reduce the chances for open military confrontation between NATO and Russia, especially in Europe, and on maintaining mutual engagement in the spheres where it is absolutely crucial.
The UK’s position in Europe has undergone significant evolution in recent years, although European security remains a core focus in the ‘Global Britain’ agenda. Previously preoccupied with Brexit, the UK government has started to move beyond negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU to fashion a revised foreign and security policy. Even though EU–UK relations might remain tense for some time, it is clear that the UK is committed to working closely with both the EU and major European powers on foreign and security policy. Equally, the transatlantic relationship will remain a core part of the UK approach to European security. As a result, UK approaches to Russia will be closely aligned with its European and North American allies.
Indeed, in contrast to the apprehension about the reliability of the US as a security partner under Donald Trump, cooperation with President Joe Biden’s administration is likely to give a new momentum to transatlantic ties. These ties are based on mutual interests and reflect largely similar approaches to Russia. Following Brexit, the UK has ensured that sanctions relating to Russia continue to operate effectively by replacing the existing EU legislation with national measures.
For Russia, it is of paramount importance which mode of interaction the Biden administration will opt for in relations with Moscow. President Biden might be a more difficult partner, but the Russian view is that opportunities for some positive moves by NATO should not be ruled out. The integration of military-to-military contact into the political discussions of the NATO–Russia Council could be an important initial step to help promote stability and manage relations. From a Russian perspective, such a move should not be seen by the Alliance as a step to appease Russia or as a departure from NATO’s established approach, but rather as a step that would lay the ground for more dialogue.
Moderate optimism can be expressed about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) regarding measures to overcome its institutional crisis and Sweden’s chairmanship in 2021, which may bring new opportunities. Russia chairing the Arctic Council from 2021 to 2023 provides a further opportunity to open the space for cooperation in some areas that affect the security situation in the High North.
With UK–Russia relations likely to be difficult, it is imperative that efforts remain focused on the realistic goal of developing a ‘new normalcy’ to stabilise the situation. Moves from confrontation to cooperation are unlikely given that both sides have irreconcilable visions of the essence of the international system and cite the lack of trust as an underlying impediment to normalisation. In this situation, it is important that efforts to exchange information and views continue and that there is further work on confidence-building measures to manage confrontation to lower risks and costs.
Summary of the Discussion
This UK–Russia dialogue workshop explored the various political and security issues affecting the contemporary European security landscape and provided an opportunity to share threat perceptions and consider the potential to mitigate security risks. The participants presented their countries’ strategic priorities and perspectives on the evolving nature of European security, including the prospects for arms control. The workshop also introduced the sub-regional perspective by focusing on the security complex in the Baltic Sea, Northern Europe and the Arctic.
The discussion focused on: the challenges that the European regional security order faces; the dangers stemming from its fragmentation; the erosion of much of the post-Cold War arms control regime; and the ebbing of the credibility of the OSCE, which faced a deep institutional crisis in 2020.
UK contributors noted that there have been a number of factors that have strained the UK–Russia relationship, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea and the military incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian interference during the 2016 Brexit referendum, the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko on UK soil in 2006, the 2018 Salisbury chemical weapons attack and the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny in 2020. Some of these actions have led to the introduction of UK sanctions against Russia. Against this backdrop, the resumption of cooperative ties between the governments does not look feasible and the restoration of direct military cooperation is unlikely.
Citing this environment, the overarching idea of the discussion shared by most participants was that the status quo in relations between Russia and the UK – a ‘new normalcy’ – is not desirable but sustainable, is ‘not acceptable but bearable’. This perception about the potential for relations is likely to continue to inform the policy responses by both sides in the foreseeable future. Participants noted that the current state of affairs appears to be characterised by a situation in which both parties have reciprocal expectations that the steps towards normalisation need to come from the other side.
At the same time, participants underlined the importance of measures to reduce the chances of open confrontation. A key theme to emerge from the discussion was, thus, the need to maintain engagement in the spheres where it is most crucial.
A Russian participant expressed his concern that the decision taken by NATO in April 2014 to sever ties with Russia had grave repercussions in terms of increasing the risks of unintended military escalation. In the absence of an appropriate venue for discussions, many in the Russian expert community would like to see the governments of Russia and NATO countries start to discuss imminent threats in order to anticipate areas of tension and to set in place the means to de-escalate confrontations.
It was recognised that, at present, communication tends to start only when the risks become unacceptable, like in Syria. With important, but narrow, mechanisms for preventing dangerous military incidents already in place, there is no incentive to conduct political talks on the factors that could lead to confrontation.
It was noted that a key role for expert discussions such as the UK–Russia dialogue should be to alert governments to the possibility that ‘acceptable risks today can become unacceptable tomorrow’. The prevention of tensions or even resolution of some areas of dispute is thus crucial to managing the current difficult relations and avoiding a further dangerous deterioration. A Russian participant noted, however, that the West seems not to be ready for a selective approach to Russia which would allow for the compartmentalisation of the bilateral agenda into independent areas.
UK participants observed that while relations with Russia are difficult, the current status quo is viewed as sustainable and there are many other issues on the international security agenda for the UK to focus on beyond relations with Russia. At the same time, it was noted that if Russia does not shift its approach in the coming years, which was deemed unlikely, the transatlantic community will increasingly focus on deterrence and risk management in their relations with Russia.
It was noted that following a series of unsuccessful outreaches to Russia by NATO members, the Allies do not feel they should be the demandeurs in terms of the reset with Russia or for arms control initiatives. A UK participant observed that recent efforts by Western European states to reach out to Russia, including President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative and the visit to Moscow by EU High Representative Josep Borrell, bore no fruit and did not generate a positive response from the Russian side.
Thus, for any reset to occur, it was suggested that Russia would have to take the first steps. This would need to involve addressing the issues that have strained relations between Russia and the West, notably the annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Ukraine and actions in the Middle East, as well as Russian activities in the cyber domain. At the same time, the widespread view in the UK is that the Russian government does not believe that it is currently in its interests to make substantial concessions in relation to eastern Ukraine, over the joint management of the Syrian issue or in regard to its cyber activities.
The Challenges Facing Arms Control in Europe
The significant risks for a new arms race emerging in Europe were discussed at length. Participants were sceptical about the prospects of another golden age for arms control emerging, comparable to the one in the 1960s after the Cuban and Berlin crises, or in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union sought a radical change in its policies towards NATO and the West. Conventional arms control in Europe – based on the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty – is in demise and the existing regimes are no longer considered adequate to address contemporary security threats.
There was consensus that the erosion of the nuclear arms control architecture between the US and Russia poses a serious threat to European security, even if the UK and other European states are not direct participants in US–Russia treaties. Following the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the extension at the beginning of 2021 of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Moscow and Washington was met with relief. This positive step to renew the last remaining arms control agreement was hailed by Russian and UK participants, albeit a deal reached in an emergency rather than as a result of a wide r détente.
The collapse in recent years of the last remaining confidence- and security-building measures in Europe was noted as emblematic of the rapid deterioration of Russia–West relations. The US under the Trump administration withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty in November 2020, accusing Russia of treaty violations that made continued US membership impossible. In January 2021, Moscow announced it would follow the US and withdraw from the Treaty, citing the failure of NATO signatories to agree to its demands not to share information from the Russian surveillance flights with the US.
Though the future of the agreement remains uncertain, a Russian expert welcomed the possibility of the Biden administration returning the US to the Treaty. It was opined that Russia actually launched the withdrawal procedure to send the signal to the US that renewing its participation should be considered an urgent matter.
Workshop participants indicated that it is unlikely that there will be progress towards Europe-wide conventional arms control, along the lines of the adapted CFE treaty, in the foreseeable future. Russian participants expressed support for consultations to address the risks around sensitive areas where NATO and Russia border with each other – in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions. The aim should be to, at minimum, establish the sub-regional arrangements that could prevent unintended security escalations.
It was also noted that it should be a priority to extend confidence-building measures into the Barents and Norwegian Seas, which are the overlapping areas of operations by the Russian Northern Fleet and the recently re-established US Second Fleet. Participants recognised, however, that NATO did not accept the idea of concluding separate sub-regional agreements with Russia. One of the benefits of re-establishing NATO–Russia military-to-military dialogue was identified as providing a more credible notification arrangement on ground forces and, thus, a means to improve transparency and trust.
On the arms control regime in Europe, Russian participants indicated that Moscow would welcome European initiatives on arms control mechanisms but noted that Russia assessed that European capitals are wary of Washington’s reactions to such initiatives and oversensitive to potential criticism.
At the same time, the Russian perception of Europe as lacking strategic autonomy on security issues loomed in the discussions when a Russian discussant expressed the belief that for the Russian defence establishment, talking to Europeans about arms control when the US is not at the table has no practical sense.
The fate of the Chemical Weapons Convention was discussed. A UK participant raised the issue of the large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria, where Russia is supporting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The use of banned chemical agents for attempted assassinations was also noted. These actions were identified as policies that seriously erode trust in Russia’s commitment to adhere to legally binding treaties.
Against the background of the chemical weapons attacks in Salisbury in 2018 and the attempted poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020 using a prohibited nerve agent, restoring the credibility of the Chemical Weapons Convention and Russia’s adherence to its provisions were seen as a cornerstone for improving relations with the West.
The deterioration of arms control arrangements was seen as reflective of the wider breakdown of the crisis management functions of the OSCE. Experts agreed that there were some improvements at the end of 2020 with agreement on the appointment of the organisation’s institutional heads and with the stable hand of the Swedish chairmanship guiding this process. But the continuous tensions around these institutions, which embody the comprehensive security concept at the core of the OSCE, and the lack of significant progress around the organisation’s regional conflict management activities, were raised. The limited levers available to the OSCE during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war were also highlighted.
A Russian expert opined that Moscow does not see a bigger independent role for the OSCE in crisis management and arms control, since it views the organisation as an instrument that has been privatised by the West. The Russia–NATO relationship was identified as a better-placed format to discuss arms control issues.
Perspectives on the Security of Northern Europe
In the session devoted to discussing Northern Europe and the Arctic, the Baltic sub-region was identified as the most dangerous environment. At the same time, the Arctic can no longer be considered as a region insulated from tensions. The vision of the Arctic as a region of peace and cooperation may no longer hold true as the security mechanisms of the past are losing their relevance.
The discussion highlighted differences in perceptions between UK and Russian specialists on the military dynamics in the region. Russia sees Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea as two distinct regions, while the UK – together with the other states of Northern Europe – increasingly see these areas as a single security space.
A Russian participant contended that assessments that Moscow is militarising the region are exaggerated; there is force modernisation, rather than the creation of new offensive capabilities. These modernisation programmes, it was argued, do not violate the military balance or provoke an arms race in the region, and are aimed to make the Russian armed forces better prepared to deal with non-traditional security threats.
A British discussant noted, however, that Russia’s increased sense of security is creating a growing sense of insecurity among its neighbours. Russia has extended its capabilities in air defence and other areas beyond its borders in order to protect its strategic forces located in the north. With new capabilities, it is able to project power beyond the Arctic into the North Atlantic.
As a result of Russian activities in the region, the transatlantic community assesses that the security environment has changed substantively. NATO, including the UK, has developed a much keener interest in the region, and NATO Arctic states that were previously resistant to the Alliance having a regional role are shifting to accept that it can be an interlocutor on Arctic military questions. There is a perception that there needs to be an Alliance response to Russian activities with a growing focus on the Greenland–Iceland–UK gap.
With new actors, including China, coming into the region, Russia is on the defensive. Responding to a question about whether Russia is prepared to talk to NATO about the Arctic and managing military tensions, it was noted that Russia is opposed to seeing more NATO engagement in the region, and security dialogue should be conducted among the five littoral states directly.
The workshop highlighted the importance of maintaining a channel for candid talks between Russia and the UK’s expert communities. There were a number of areas of consensus, in the sense that both sides recognised the need to maintain a dialogue without illusions in order to, at minimum, better understand each other’s perspective and positions. Participants agreed that the UK and Russia should be aware of the real potential risks of any further deterioration in European security at the cost of an arms race, or even unwanted confrontation. Dialogue participants also highlighted that, despite the bilateral difficulties, there are ways that both parties can manage the risks of the ‘new normal’ situation. There is, thus, an urgent need to explore how this can be achieved effectively.
A realistic assessment of UK–Russia relations points to the need for both sides to recognise that the focus of bilateral ties should be on developing pragmatic and limited areas of cooperation. Discussion of a wholesale reset, which is not feasible at present, should be avoided. Some of those pragmatic areas could be talks about how to make progress on arms control, ways to strengthen military-to-military contacts, and maintaining the discussions on threat perceptions and regional security.
*Malcolm Chalmers, Deputy Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)
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