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China’s Overseas Military Bases

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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.

Central Asia

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.

Conclusion

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).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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.

Defense

Presidential Irrationality and Wrongdoing in US Nuclear Command Authority

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Credit: U.S. Air Force

Abstract: In post-World War II memory, no greater political danger has confronted the United States than the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Endowed with nuclear command authority, this unstable and openly law-violating American leader pointed the United States toward existential harms.[1] Recognizing this threat to the nation’s physical survival, General Mark Milley acted honorably and effectively to protect an imperiled republic. By expanding pertinent safeguards against any presidential abuse of nuclear command authority,[2] the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff did what was necessary and proper. The following assessment by Professor Louis René Beres, who has been publishing on nuclear war-related issues[3] for more than half a century, underscores what should never again be allowed to defile America’s national security decision-making. “The safety of the people,” reminds Cicero in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

——————

“As to dangers arising from an irrational American president, the best protection is not to elect one.”

General Maxwell D. Taylor, from personal letter to the author, 14 March 1976[4]

Meanings of Decisional Irrationality

Strictly speaking, irrationality is not a proper medical or psychiatric term; rather, it is a more-or-less scientific description of human distortion and behavioral disposition.[5] Still, as a convenient shorthand for exploring mental or emotional debility in US presidential decision-making, this colloquial reference is adequate, timely and potentially useful. In essence, though now just retrospective, America’s most senior general officer revealed assorted verifiable grounds for questioning former President Donald J. Trump’s mental stability. Now, looking ahead, it is necessary to take a longer term and generic look at US presidential nuclear authority.

               This look must become a task for disciplined strategic thinkers, not politicians.

               How to begin? This uniquely critical area of presidential decision-making – one that has remained ambiguous or deliberately “opaque” – concerns both the right and capacity to order a launch of US nuclear weapons. To be tangibly meaningful, these intersecting decisional components must always be examined together. This is the case though any presidential nuclear capacity functioning without correct antecedent authority would be worrisome per se.

               By definition, as I have discovered personally over the past half century, these are all complicated intellectual matters. In 1976, then just five years out of Princeton as a newly-minted Ph.D., I began work on an original book about nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.[6]  From the start, I focused especially on US presidential prerogatives to order the firing of nuclear weapons.  I was most particularly interested in the potentially-plausible prospect of presidential nuclear irrationality and/or wrongdoing.

               In technically scientific terms, this did not mean a US president who was “clinically insane” (obviously the most fearsome sort of scenario), but “only” a Head of State who might sometime value some specific preference or combination of preferences more highly than American national survival. Today, at least until General Milley’s revelations, we worry more about leadership irrationality in certain other countries, most conspicuously in North Korea and Iran.[7] Nonetheless, as the JCS Chair recently disclosed, the worst atomic decisional errors could happen here. Even if this were not the case, there could still take place  variously unforeseen decisional synergies between (1) a fully rational American president and his irrational negotiating counterparts in Pyongyang or Tehran;[8] or (2) an irrational American president and his expectedly rational counterparts in such conspicuously adversarial states.[9]

In the Beginning

               Back “in the early days” of apocalyptic nuclear issues, and with an expressly American decision-making focus in mind, I entered into ongoing communication with then-former JCS Chairman Maxwell Taylor. In my last correspondence with the distinguished and decorated general, he responded with a handwritten letter (attached hereto) dated 14 March 1976. As the Taylor response explicitly referenced only the dangers of an “irrational American president,” I could legitimately undertake no automatic extrapolation of his diagnosis to other strategic risks.[10]

Still, there are various related hazards that ought never be disregarded prima facie.  For example, we must become better prepared to deal with a US Chief Executive who appears more than irrational. This means a president who was seemingly “crazy,” “insane,” or “mad.”[11]

               It is difficult for me to imagine that General Taylor would have hesitated to adapt these characterizations of more advanced decisional “pathology” to the extant subject-matter scope of nuclear decision making. This is the case even though such characterizations could never be seriously scientific. To obtain authentically scientific assessments of nuclear event probability, there must first exist a determinable frequency record of pertinent past events. Unassailably (and fortunately), there has never been a nuclear war from which to draw valid strategic inferences.

               There is more. Any US presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would be effectively sui generis. The US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II did not constitute a nuclear war, but rather the American use of nuclear weapons in an otherwise conventional war. In August 1945 (the month of my own birth in war-torn Europe), there were no other atomic bombs anywhere on earth.

               Not a one.

Whether concerned with presidential irrationality or madness, present analytic concern should be focused upon an emotionally or mentally debilitated president.[12]  Whichever applies, the truly vital questions going forward will have to do with Constitutional, statutory and other recognizable sources of US war-making authority, especially presidential right to order the use of nuclear weapons.

International Law and US Law

Urgent questions here will relate to assorted and sometimes subtle intersections of international law and US law. From the beginning of the United States, international law has been an integral part of its national law. Early on, Chief Justice John Marshall asserted and reasserted that all international law – whatever its source – had been incorporated into the domestic law of the United States.[13] Before Marshall, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Law of England clarified that the “law of nations” is always “a necessary part of  the law of the land.”

These Commentaries represent the authoritative foundation of all United States law.

               Under current US law, whatever its apparent jurisprudential origins, a president may correctly use military force once Congress has declared a war or after the US (and/or its citizens) have been attacked.[14] As to the permissible kinds of force and levels of force, these operational decisions would have to be determinable according to longstanding laws of war of international law (the comprehensive law of armed conflict or humanitarian international law), and also the municipal law of the United States. In any such foreseeable circumstances, there would exist no clearly identifiable prohibitions against nuclear force per se.[15]

               For better or for worse, non-weapon-specific prohibitions would apply broadly, to the extent that any US retaliation or counter-retaliation would violate the always-binding expectations of discrimination (sometimes called “distinction”), proportionality,[16] or military necessity.[17]

               Both the US Constitution and the War Powers Act place strict limits on any president’s authority to initiate hostilities with a foreign power, whether by conventional or nuclear means. A significant grey area has to do with the Commander-in- Chief’s right to strike first defensively or preemptively; that is, as a presumptive expression of “anticipatory self-defense.[18] Here, the authorizing component of permissibility must be the perception of any grave danger that is “imminent in point of time.”

               Logically, the relevant criteria of “imminence” could not reasonably be the same today as they were back in a pre-nuclear 1837. That was the year of the Caroline, the classic case setting the correct legal standard for all subsequent preemptive national action.[19]

Matters of Chronology and Crisis

               What should we have expected from former President Donald Trump if he had sometime reasoned that a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies was “imminent in point of time?” Should we have remained comfortable with leaving such a prospectively existential judgment to his own personal decisional standards of the moment? Or should this eleventh-hour option have been be a matter of more plainly shared or “concurrent authority” with the US Congress?[20]

               In actual state practice, applicable questions of law are apt to be subordinated to the overarching and ubiquitous assumption[21] that any  president’s final authority in defending the United States should never be challenged during an impending or already-ongoing crisis. This sort of assumption would become especially worrisome in circumstances where an enemy nuclear attack could be contemplated and anticipated. In brief, this means that a verifiably irrational or mad American president would likely have his military commands obeyed, up to and including an order to use nuclear weapons. This reasoning applies also to preemptive American strikes, whether launched in retaliation or counter-retaliation. It also means that while a wide variety of redundant safeguards already exists to prevent unauthorized uses of American nuclear weapons up and down the identifiable nuclear chain of command, no parallel safeguards can exist at the top or apex of this unique decisional hierarchy.

               This was the precise conclusion reached in General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 letter to me (attached hereto) on nuclear command authority.

               There is more. It remains possible, of course, and even potentially desirable, that a presidential order to use nuclear weapons would be disobeyed at one or another recognizable level of implementation. Strictly speaking, however, as any such expression of disobedience would be “illegal,” it is not sufficiently probable or reliable in extremis atomicum. The staggering irony of actually having to hope for certain high-level instances of disobedience or chain-of-command failures ought not be too casually set aside.

               Prima facie, this irony reveals that extant US nuclear-decision safeguards are sorely and overwhelmingly inadequate.

The Best Protection Lies with the American Voter           

               Is the US nuclear presidential authority dilemma remediable in any still-promising ways? “The best protection,” I learned from General Maxwell Taylor almost fifty years ago, is “not to elect” an irrational president. But now, as such straightforward advice cannot be acted upon retroactively, the residually “best protection” must lie elsewhere Among potentially gainful sources, this suggests more vigilant statutory oversight by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Advisor and certain select others. This oversight also includes a more predictably reliable willingness – either singly or in appropriate collaboration with the others – to disobey any presumptively irrational or insane presidential nuclear command.

               Such willingness could be correctly defended as law-enforcing under those universally binding Nuremberg Principles (1946)[22] that obligate all persons (especially senior government officials everywhere)  to resist “crimes of state.” Because war and crimes against humanity are not mutually exclusive, compliance with overriding Nuremberg Principles could become necessary not only to limit aggression, but also to prevent genocide.[23]

               Ultimately, America’s best chance of avoiding or surviving such a grievous threat could depend less upon any codified law or tangible institutions than the last-minute or impromptu courage of a handful of senior officials. Though any such estimation must be less than ideal or optimal, it may simply be “realistic.” To wit, it was the courage and insight of a single senior decision-maker, JCS Chair Mark Milley, that firmed up necessary Constitutional protections against a severely debilitated commander-in-chief.

Buttressed by national and international law, it is incumbent upon voting American citizens to act upon General Maxwell Taylor’s 1976 warning.[24] That earlier alarm, which cautioned “not to elect” a potentially “irrational” American president, should be extended to include even a potentially “insane” Commander-in-Chief. In the final analysis, however, we may not be able to rely upon prudential and law-oriented voters to effectively save the United States from itself – that is, from prospectively aberrant nuclear decision-making. In that intolerable case, all narrowly statutory or technical directions on nuclear decision making would be overtaken by  visceral expectations of American “mass.”[25]

               Then it would be too late.

 American democracy owes a sincere debt to US General Mark Milley. In the sycophancy-driven Trump world, a world of determined anti-reason, Milley’s reliance upon law and virtue was much more than merely acceptable.[26] For US national integrity and survival, it was indispensable.

But what should we do now?


[1] For informed accounts by this author of nuclear attack effects, see: Louis René Beres,  The Management of World Power: A Theoretical Analysis (1973); Louis René Beres, Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1975);  Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy ((Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1984); Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books, 1986); and Louis René Beres, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (2016; 2nd ed., 2018).

[2] This expansion included urgent consultations with chiefs of the armed forces and conversations with foreign leaders concerned about Trump-induced US instabilities.

[3] These publications have been both strategic and legal in focus.

[4] General Taylor was an earlier Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. His handwritten letter to Professor Beres follows this article and the author’s bio. On August 18, 2017, Rep. Zoe Lofgren introduced a bill to the US House of Representatives that would have required President Donald Trump to undergo a mental health examination to determine if he is emotionally stable enough to remain in office. The proposed legislation expressly invoked the 25th Amendment, a rarely-used Constitutional provision allowing the vice-president and members of the Cabinet to remove a president from office. Rep. Lofgren’s bill did not become law.

[5] “Science,” says 20th-century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset in Man and Crisis, ” by which I mean the entire body of knowledge about things, whether corporeal or spiritual – is as much a work of imagination as it is of observation…. the latter is not possible without the former.”

[6] This book was published by the University of Chicago Press as Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980).

[7]Irrational adversaries would likely not be deterred by the same threats directed at presumptively rational foes. On pertinent errors of correct deterrence reasoning (here regarding Iran in particular) see: Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Could Israel Safely Deter a Nuclear Iran?”  The Atlantic, August 2012; and Professor Louis René Beres and General John T. Chain, “Israel and Iran at the Eleventh Hour,” Oxford University Press (OUP Blog). February 23, 2012. General Chain (USAF/ret.) served as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC).

[8] Expressions of decisional irrationality could take different or overlapping forms. These include a disorderly or inconsistent value system; computational errors in calculation; an incapacity to communicate efficiently; random or haphazard influences in the making or transmittal of particular decisions; and the internal dissonance generated by any structure of collective decision-making (i.e., assemblies of pertinent individuals who lack identical value systems and/or whose organizational arrangements impact their willing capacity to act as a single or unitary national decision maker).

[9] Nuclear risks threatening US security could form an intricately interconnected network. Capable assessments of such risk must eventually include a patient search for synergies, and also for possible cascades of failures that would represent one especially serious iteration of synergy. Other risk properties that will warrant careful assessment within this genre include contagion potential and persistence.

[10] One such generally ignored risk is “playing to the audience,” that is, seeking personal popularity at the expense of national security. Accordingly, see Sophocles, Antigone, Speech of Creon, King of Thebes: “I hold despicable and always have…. anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[11] Donald Trump’s presidency brings to mind those fragments of Euripides that concern tragic endings. Here we may learn from the classical playwright, “Whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad.” Inter alia, Greek tragedy explores the wider civil harms that any deranged “sovereign” mind can produce. Looking at the United States today, struggling with rampant “plague” and with extraordinary domestic instability, there is a still-discoverable wisdom in classical Greek tragedy.

[12] Significantly, neither the irrational/rational nor insane/sane distinction is narrowly dichotomous. There are, rather, multiple or “continuous” variations of each pairing, an indisputable fact that makes any more far-reaching psychological or legal analysis of these already-complex nuclear decision-making issues even more problematic.

[13]  See also “Supremacy Clause” of the US Constitution (Article VI); The Paquette Habana, 175 US 677,700 (1900); and Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726, F.2d. 774, 781, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1984) per curiam).

[14] For the crime of aggression under international law, see: Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, adopted by the UN General Assembly, Dec. 14, 1974. U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 UN GAOR, Supp. (No. 31), 142, UN Doc A/9631 (1975) reprinted in 13 I.L.M., 710 (1974).

[15] See, on such issues: Summary of the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons (Advisory Opinion), 1996.

[16]  The principle of proportionality has its jurisprudential and philosophic origins in the Biblical Lex Talionis, the law of exact retaliation. The “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” can be found in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah, or Biblical Pentateuch.

[17] The principle of “military necessity” is defined authoritatively as follows: “Only that degree and kind of force, not otherwise prohibited by the law of armed conflict, required for the partial or complete submission of the enemy with a minimum expenditure of time, life, and physical resources may be applied.” See: United States, Department of the Navy, jointly with Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; and Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, The Commander’s Handbook on the Law of Naval Operations, NWP 1-14M, Norfolk, Virginia, October 1995, p. 5-1.

[18] Long before the nuclear age, Swiss scholar Emmerich de Vattel took a position in strong favor of anticipatory self-defense. Vattel concludes The Law of Nations (1758) as follows: “The safest plan is to prevent evil, where that is possible. A nation has the right to resist the injury another seeks to inflict upon it, and to use force and every other just means of resistance against the aggressor.” (See Vattel, “The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations,” reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust 1916 (1758). Vattel, in the conspicuously earlier fashion of Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius, (The Law of War and Peace, 1625) drew widely upon ancient Hebrew Scripture and Jewish law.

[19] The Caroline concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally been sufficient in law to justify certain appropriate militarily defensive actions. In a formal exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then US Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for national self-defense that did not require antecedent attack. Accordingly, the authoritative jurisprudential framework now permitted a military response to threat as long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Naturally, this standard could sometimes be more easily met in our time-compressed and prospectively apocalyptic nuclear age.

[20] Reflecting this second point-of-view, Congressman Ted W. Lieu (D, LA County) and Senator Edward J. Markey (D, Massachusetts) introduced H.R. 669 (Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017) back on 24 January 2017. Although this proposed legislation would have prohibited the president from launching a nuclear first strike without a Congressional Declaration of War, it’s not clear that it could also have dealt satisfactorily with the irrationality/insanity issues herein under discussion. Moreover, the proposed legislation seemed to make no meaningful distinction between a nuclear first-strike and a nuclear first-use. https://lieu.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/congressman-lieu-senator-markey-introduce-restricting-first-use-0

[21] In part, at least, this implicitly core assumption is rooted in our continuously-anarchic system of international relations, a decentralized structure often referred to by the professors as “Westphalian.” The reference here is to the landmark Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty-Years War and created the still-extant state system. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1, Consol. T.S. 119. Together, these two major agreements comprise the historic “Peace of Westphalia.”

[22] See Affirmation of the Principles of International Law Recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal, Adopted by the UN General Assembly, 11 December 1946. Inter alia, these Principles underscore the formal jurisprudential assumption of solidarity between states. This peremptory expectation, known in formal law as a jus cogens assumption, was already evident in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis (533 CE); Hugo Grotius, 2 The Law of War and Peace (1625; Chapter 20); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations (1758; Chapter 19).

[23] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 9 December 1948; Entered into force, 12 January 1951.

[24] “The safety of the people,” Cicero warns prophetically in The Laws, “shall be the highest law.”

[25] The “mass-man,” we may learn from 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset The Revolt of the Masses, “learns only in his own flesh.” Seem, also, by Professor Beres, at Yale: Louis Rene Beres,  https://archive-yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/call-intellect-and-courage; and at Princeton: Louis Rene Beres: https://www.dailyprincetonian.com/article/2018/02/emptiness-and-consciousness

[26] There is no longer a virtuous nation,” warns the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “and the best of us live by candlelight.”

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Defense

American Weaponry in the Hands of the Taliban

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Source: Twitter

The hasty withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan attests to both the indifference of the U.S. administration as regards the future of Afghanistan as a state and the neglect for its obligations to its allies. Besides, Washington has clearly violated the current UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban, which was established in accordance with Resolution 1988 (2011).

Paragraph 1, subparagraph (c), of the Resolution calls on all countries to “prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of arms and related material of all types including weapons and ammunition, military vehicles and equipment, paramilitary equipment, and spare parts” to the Taliban and other individual groups, undertakings and entities associated with them [1].

Washington faced serious backlash for violating the UN sanctions regime upon abandoning weaponry and ammunition during an abrupt evacuation of troops from the country—such as when U.S. troops left Bagram, the largest airbase in Afghanistan, without warning the local Afghan army in early July, 2021. General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, the new commander of Bagram Air Base, stated that Afghan soldiers only later learned of the Americans having departed, once they had all “disappeared into the night.” This is important as this proves that the Americans did not transfer weaponry and ammunition to the Afghan army through official channels. Since U.S. troops had turned off electricity at the airbase, looters soon found their way in, with barracks and storage tents ransacked. Among the “trophies” left by the Americans were hundreds of armored vehicles and ammunition, all of which ended up in the hands of the Taliban, either that very night or after Bagram being taken over (see image 1).

Image 1: Armored vehicles (left) and ammunition (right) deserted by the Americans at Bagram Airbase.

Source: RIA Novosti (left) and Haroon Sabawoon – Anadolu Agency (right)

According to The Military Balance, a military journal published annually, Afghan government forces had 640 MSFV armored security vehicles, 200 MaxxPro armored fighting vehicles and several thousand Hummers at their disposal. The Afghan Air Force had 22 EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) light attack aircraft (see image 2), four C-130H Hercules transport aircraft, 24 Cessna 208B and 18 turboprop PC-12s. The Army Air Corps boasted 41 MD-530F light turbine helicopters and as many as 30 multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters (see image 2).

Image 2: A light attack EMB-314 Super Tucano (А-29) aircraft captured by the Taliban at Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport (left) and a light MD-530 F multi-role helicopter (center); a multi-mission UH-60A Black Hawk helicopter in the sky above Qandahar with what seems to be a person hanged by the Taliban (right).

Source: Twitter

On August 17, 2021, Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Advisor, confirmed that a significant amount of U.S. weapons had fallen into the hands of the Taliban. “And obviously, we don’t have a sense that they are going to readily hand it over to us at the airport,” he noted, thus confirming that the United States allowed the indirect transfer of weapons to what the UN Security Council has designated a terrorist organization.

This is not the first time that Washington has violated a UN Security Council Resolution. For example, a statement by Sergei Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, suggests that the United States released four Taliban members from Guantanamo in 2014, all of whom were on the Security Council sanctions list, to send them to the Middle East.

This was quite in line with the U.S. policy incepted back in 2010 and aimed at engaging in direct dialogue with the Taliban. This led to the UN Security Council Committee—established pursuant to Resolution 1267 on sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—breaking up into two independent sanction mechanisms[2]. The UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 devised procedures that allow for a more liberal approach to the Taliban list (compared to those involved with Al-Qaeda), excluding those mentioned in consolidated lists of persons, groups and entities subject to restrictions.

Such facts should, in fact, be subject to the scrutiny of the UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 (including its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team), in whose proceedings the Russian Federation takes part and whose mandate implies monitoring compliance with Taliban-related sanctions as well as presenting periodic reports on sanctions measures to the Security Council.

Prospects of the U.S. imposing sanctions against Russia in connection with the Taliban

It is important to recognize that the “Taliban issue” could become somewhat of a scapegoat for Washington, especially in the eyes of its allies, to impose even more anti-Russia sanctions. In addition to the Executive Order on Blocking Property with Respect to Specified Harmful Foreign Activities of the Government of the Russian Federation signed on April 15, 2021, the White House published a Fact Sheet outlining key accusations against Russia, which include reports on rewards for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. According to the document, the Biden administration is taking measures following the intelligence reports of Russia having encouraged Taliban attacks on the U.S. and alliance contingent in Afghanistan. Since such allegations directly affect the safety and well-being of U.S. troops, a solution can be found through diplomatic, military and intelligence channels.

Biden’s executive decree foresees the introduction of blocking sanctions for attempts to challenge the credibility of elections in the United States and allied countries, malicious hacker activities, spreading corruption internationally, crackdowns on dissidents and journalists, undermining security and stability in countries and regions important for U.S. national security interests, and the violation of international law, including the territorial integrity of states.

The reason for the Biden administration’s concern is likely a story published in The New York Times in June 2020 claiming that Russian military intelligence had offered Taliban-affiliated militia a reward for the murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Sources of the newspaper claimed to have uncovered such information during interrogations of Afghan militia.

As a result, senator Robert Menendez suggested in September 2020 that the U.S. Congress move forward with yet another anti-Russia sanctions package, the Russia Bounty Response Act of 2020. The Act implied freezing assets, visa restrictions for President Vladimir Putin, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and other high-ranking officials, as well as restrictions on defense enterprises. The initiative was supported by Dem. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In an interview with MSNBC, she emphasized the need to immediately impose sanctions against Russia for “colluding” with the Taliban.

In his turn, however, former President Donald Trump called The New York Times story “a fake,” stating that the article had been ordered for political reasons. Trump went on to state that the U.S. intelligence had acknowledged the information used in the publication was misleading. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said there was no evidence of a “conspiracy” between Russia and Taliban officials. The Taliban also denied information from The New York Times about existing ties with Russia.

One should bear in mind that the United States and Russia are adopting more polarized stances regarding the situation in Afghanistan, which became evident during the UN Security Council meeting on August 30, 2021, when Moscow and Beijing refrained from supporting the West-drafted resolution on Afghanistan. Thus, Washington will look for any excuse to discredit Russia. An effective instrument in counteracting such sanctions, hoaxes and other foul play common for the United States should be that of keeping a meticulous record of Washington’s violations of the UN Security Council sanctions regime against the Taliban to present the findings to the international community.

  1. The Taliban is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.
  2. Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization that is banned in Russia under Decision No. 03-116 of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation dated February 14, 2003, which entered into force on March 4, 2003.

From our partner RIAC

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Defense

A Glimpse at China’s Nuclear Build-Up

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Photo:Xinhua

The People’s Republic of China is now the second largest military spender after the United States, and the country has proven that it has the technical capability to develop revolutionary outer space technology, which is often related to military purposes. Nevertheless, China’s armed forces continue to lag behind when it comes to nuclear military technology, as Beijing only has 270 to 350 nuclear warheads, slightly more than the French armed forces.

Thus, China is investing in innovative research on civilian thorium nuclear facilities to become a leader in civilian nuclear, while it is reportedly not investing as much in the military nuclear sector.

This article explores the latest developments concerning “Made in China” nuclear weapons to explain why China’s armed forces are rather sluggish to increase the number of warheads due to the parallel development of other components of the military (e.g. nuclear submarines).

A brief history of Chinese nuclear weapons

China’s first nuclear weapons experiment took place in 1964, followed by its first hydrogen bomb test in 1967. Further development continued well until 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In order to do so, China started building uranium enrichment plants in Baotou and Lanzhou as early as 1958, followed by a plutonium facility in Jiuquan and the Lop Nur nuclear test site in 1960. It is no secret the Soviet Union assisted in the early stages of the Chinese programme by sending advisers to the fissile material production facilities, having even agreed to provide a prototype bomb, missiles and related technology in October 1957.

In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Mao that he planned to discuss arms control with the United States and Great Britain, while Beijing was adamantly opposed to Khrushchev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” after the fall of Stalin. Although Soviet officials assured the Chinese leadership that the country will remain under the Soviet nuclear umbrella, the disagreements widened the emerging Sino-Soviet rift. In June 1959, the two nations formally terminated their military and technological cooperation agreement, and all Soviet assistance to China’s nuclear programme was abruptly terminated by July 1960, with all Soviet technicians withdrawn from the programme.

This brief history of nuclear weapons in China tells us a lot about the current reason for Chinese weak nuclear capabilities, which had to be developed without the support of the USSR since the 1960s. Moreover, the desire for nuclear capabilities is closely related to the conflict with Taiwan and, as such, Beijing does not need to radically increase its capabilities since the island remains a non-nuclear territory to this day. Furthermore, increasing capabilities would worry the United States and Russia, the other two major nuclear powers—and Beijing had no interest in doing so, especially during the Cold War.

China’s nuclear posture and policy

The Chinese approach is focusing on quality over quantity, which explains the low number of warheads to this day. As of today, most nuclear warheads built during the Cold War can be intercepted by anti-missile systems in NATO and Russia as they are relying on outdated technology, which explains Russia’s desire to build the hypersonic glide vehicle such as the “Avangard”.

The same is true for China. As the U.S. strengthens its missile defenses capabilities, China is likely to further modify its nuclear posture to first ensure the credibility of its retaliatory strike force, including deploying hypersonic glide vehicles rather than increasing the number of warheads.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a “low alert level” for its nuclear forces and keeps most of its warheads in a central storage facility in the Qinling Mountain Range, although some are kept in smaller regional storage facilities around the country. Although there are rumors that China has coupled warheads to some of its missiles to increase their availability, we have not seen official sources confirming this. In fact, the latest Pentagon report explicitly states that “China almost certainly retains the majority of its peacetime nuclear force—with separate launchers, missiles, and warheads”.

Both the United States and Russia operate early warning systems to detect nuclear attacks and launch their missiles quickly, and a Chinese early warning system could also potentially be designed to enable a future missile defense system to intercept incoming missiles. The latest Pentagon report indicates that China is developing an HQ-19 mid-course missile defense system that could intercept Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) and possibly intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), although this would take many more years to develop. In addition, the Chinese government has a long-standing policy of not using nuclear weapons first and not using nuclear capabilities against non-nuclear countries or nuclear-weapon-free zones.

Military nuclear capabilities on land, air and sea

China has continued to field the DF-26, a dual-capable mobile IRBM, and is replacing the older DF-31A road-mobile ICBM launchers with the more maneuverable DF-31AG launcher. It is also in the early stages of commissioning the new DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM that would be capable of carrying multiple independent target re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) like the old DF-5B based on a liquid fuel silo.

At sea, China is adding two more ballistic missile submarines and developing a new type. Additionally, China has recently reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers and is developing an air-launched ballistic missile to have a nuclear capability.

It is estimated that China has produced a stockpile of about 350 nuclear warheads, of which about 272 are intended to be launched by more than 240 operational land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers. The remaining 78 warheads are expected to arm additional land- and sea-based missiles that are being installed.

Land

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, supervised by General Zhou Yaning (commander) and General Wang Jiasheng (political commissar), is in charge of the ground nuclear forces. Since the Cold War, China is continuing the gradual modernization of its nuclear-capable ground missile force, and it is estimated that the PLA rocket force has about 240 land-based missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Of these, about 150 can strike parts of the United States (Hawaii). The number of ICBMs that can strike the continental United States is smaller: about 90 missiles with some 130 warheads.

These capabilities are easily explained by the fact that land-based missiles have a greater range than sea- and air-based ones, at least until China upgrades its sea-based systems. Thus, land-based missiles increase range and allow targeting of distant nuclear counterparts—the United States, France and the United Kingdom—while ensuring capabilities against the other four nearby nuclear powers: Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan. It is likely that land-based capabilities will remain a major component until submarine capabilities are expanded. Once submarines are as advanced as those of other nations, then—like the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom—China is likely to focus more and more on submarines rather than land-based capabilities.

Sea

China has introduced six Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which are based at the Longposan naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island (only four of them are currently operational). The two newest SSBNs, which were handed over to the PLA Navy in April 2020, are said to be variants of the original Type 094 design, known as Type 094A. These boats have a more prominent hump, which has led to a speculation that they could carry up to 16 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (CSS-N-14), instead of the usual 12. However, satellite images confirm that the new submarines are equipped with 12 launch tubes each.

Each JL-2 is equipped with a single warhead and, possibly, penetration assistance. The JL-2, which is a modified version of the DF-31, is supposed to have a range of about 7,200 km, although U.S. estimates of the range have varied over the years. Such a range would be sufficient to target Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, as well as Russia and India, from waters near China.

Unlike the land-based approach, the nuclear submarine can move around the world, have an unknown destination and a changing position, and it can retaliate up to several months after a nuclear conflict has ended. As such, submarines are now the main component of the French and British nuclear forces, and are vital to the U.S. and Russia. However, this requires advanced technology, which China does not yet have (nor do India and Pakistan). Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army is upgrading its submarine capabilities and technology, which should lead to increased relevance of submarines for nuclear operations in the long term. China’s new-generation Type 096 SSBNs will carry an extended-range SLBM, the JL-3, which, according to unofficial sources, could have a range of over 9,000 km. Chinese media describe the JL-3 as an SLBM “equivalent or similar to the French M51,” pointing out that its diameter has been increased compared to the JL-2 and that it incorporates a carbon-fiber casing, giving it an increased range.

Air

China developed several types of nuclear bombs and used aircraft to carry at least 12 of the nuclear weapons it detonated as part of its nuclear test programme between 1965 and 1979. However, the PLA Air Force’s nuclear mission remained dormant until the 2000s, presumably because its older bomb-equipped aircraft were unlikely to be relevant in a nuclear conflict.

Countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan and India, are not focusing on long-range bombers, as they are easier to track, they move slowly and they are no major asset compared to submarines and land-based missiles. In this respect, only two nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—are investing in bombers. China wishes to become the third nuclear power and has therefore developed the H-6 bomber, which is technologically advanced enough to compete with its American counterparts Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit”, Rockwell B-1 “Lancer” and Boeing B-52 as well as the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M, Tupolev Tu-95 and Tupolev Tu-160. The Chinese H-6 should be complementary to the Xian H-20, as the bomber world is rapidly evolving with the introduction of the new American Northrop Grumman B-21 “Raider” and the Russian Tupolev PAK DA.

In conclusion, China is most certainly on its way to becoming the third largest nuclear power with growing capabilities to rival Washington and Moscow. In order to do so, it will need to increase its nuclear submarine capabilities to catch up with France and the United Kingdom, as well as the continued development of the H-20 bomber project to compete with the United States and Russia. Beijing has surely decided to invest in quality rather than quantity, preferring to slowly and precisely increase the number of warheads when it will first have the ability to defeat anti-missile systems.

Interestingly, China’s military nuclear approach is more about catching up with the other nuclear powers, in contrast to the civilian nuclear sector where the country is more innovative, as evidenced by the two thorium nuclear reactors under construction in the Gobi Desert (China plans to bring thorium reactors into commercial operation by 2030). Thus, China could become the leader in civil thorium nuclear power before it closes the gap as a military nuclear power.

From our partner RIAC

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