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US-China Developing Confrontation: India and QUAD

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At the request of the editors of International Affairs magazine, the renowned Kanwal Sibal, India’s Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, comments on new US initiatives in Southeast Asia.

Judging by its Interim National Strategic Security Guidance (INSSG) document (March 2021) the Biden Administration intends to be tough towards China on many fronts. Human rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet, threats to Taiwan, limiting Hong Kong’s autonomy, encroachments and territorial pressures in the East and South China Seas, freedom of navigation and overflight issues, preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, unfair trade practices, technology theft, resilience of critical supply chains, emerging technologies, standard setting for 5G, a new competitive US industrial strategy, and so on.

Whereas Trump had alienated allies and weakened America’s hand in dealing with China’s challenge, the Biden administration seeks to speak to China from a position of strength. For this it seeks to restore ties of confidence with Japan, South Korea and Australia in priority. In doing this the US is indirectly recognizing its reduced strength and its inability to meet the China challenge alone. In this perspective, It had reached out to Europe for policy coordination towards China even before it took office, but Europe went ahead to sign a Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI) to protect its own independent and competitive interests in China. After the fractious US-China Alaska meeting, the US has continued its coordinating efforts with Europe but faces resistance from Germany and France in particular who want to retain their strategic autonomy in dealing with China, believing that US policy under Biden will remain self-centred and that too much water had flown under the bridge for US-Europe ties to simply revert to the pre-Trump era.

The timing of virtual Quad summit before the Alaska meeting was also intended to signal to China that like-minded countries were coming together to deter what they view as China’s increasingly aggressive policies. From a telephonic meeting at the Foreign Ministers level in February 2021 the summit was a major step forward in consolidating the Quad politically. India, earlier reticent in moving too far too quickly with the Quad in the light of the need to manage the stresses of its China ties, decided to join. After the stand-off in eastern Ladakh India has realized that deferring to Chinese sensitivities is not reciprocated by China. The visit of the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to India coincided with the US-China meeting in Alaska.

In the INSSG, India is not treated strategically in the same category as US allies like Japan, Republic of Korea and Australia. The China challenge is felt primarily in the western Pacific where the US has bases, deployed military forces and a powerful naval presence. China’s challenge in the Indian Ocean is not considered of the same order for the time being, but partnership with India, with its significant naval assets and geographic position, overlooking the critical sea lanes of communication in the region, is important for the future. India is seen as a net security provider, fitting into the template of burden sharing. For this the US has shown its readiness to build India’s maritime surveillance capacities by supplying defense platforms, intelligence sharing, increasingly complex military exercises with the inclusion of Japan and Australia, and utilizing the India-US defense-related foundational agreements that provide for inter-operability and sharing of geo-spatial data.

Although the joint statement issued by the Quad summit did not mention China by name, China was of course discussed, with each leader sharing his thinking. According to US NSA Jake Sullivan, China, about whom none of the leaders had any illusions he said, was discussed at the meeting but was not its focus. Coercion of Australia, harassment around the Senkakus, border aggression against India figured in the discussions. According to him, the Quad is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo-Pacific. Cybersecurity incidents impacting Quad members too figured, including attacks against India’s power sector. He dismissed the talk about Quad being a military alliance, though he stated that it has to worked out at the leaders level and that of the working groups how the Quad can move from freedom of navigation to broader regional security questions. Apparently, at Alaska, the Chinese reacted negatively to US mentioning its dialogue with India.

The summit rightly felt that the Quad should have a broader agenda than simply China, a point of view that India has studiously supported. India is conscious of the fact that the US, as well as Japan and Australia, have deep economic ties with China, which can be rolled back selectively to lessen dependence by decoupling in critical areas, restricting Chinese access to advanced critical technologies in which China has external dependence such as semi-conductors, preventing Chinese investments in sensitive areas etc but cannot be dramatically reduced, given China’s huge weight in the global economy. The US policy seems to be “extreme competition”, cooperation and confrontation, as required. India’s investment in the Quad, beyond the maritime security aspect, would be to benefit from a shift away from China of critical supply chains, use India’s democratic environment to attract more US investment and technology transfers that would accelerate India’s growth for the welfare of its people, besides enabling it to close the developing gaps with China.

It is in this perspective that the decision on building India’s capacity for vaccines should be seen. The three expert groups set up by the Quad summit, on vaccines, critical technologies (5G, AI, Quantum Computing, human biology) and climate change broaden the Quad’s agenda, opening up bilateral opportunities with the US for India, besides creating the beginnings of a structure. In line with Indian thinking and emphasis on a broader agenda, the Quad leaders pledged “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains”. The decision to manufacture US vaccine in India with Biological E Ltd to provide one billion doses to the Indo-Pacific region was taken, with Japanese finance and Australia’s delivery support. The third group will deal with critical – and emerging-technologies to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future. 

China’s concerns about the Quad summit and the strengthening of India’s strategic ties with the US have no basis. China has benefited enormously from US capital and technology and that of its allies for China’s rise. The economic power it acquired, and with that military power, has been used by it to expand territorially in the western Pacific and globally through the BRI, not to mention in the Indian Ocean. Now that defenses are being put up against China’s policies and ambitions, China, after the stand-off in Ladakh, has no ground to warn India not to become close to the US. Even now the US is China’s biggest economic partner and China is reaching out to the US to ease pressures on it. Its critique of “selective multilateralism” would apply equally to the Russia-India-China group, BRICS as well as the SCO. It has established a Quad in our region- the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan-Nepal group, in which Nepal does not fit at all.

The bristling encounter at Alaska demonstrates that China’s expectations that a change of administration in the US could lessen tensions and some accommodation could be worked out have been belied for the time being. China touted the Alaska meeting as a strategic dialogue, which was strongly denied the US. In response to Secretary of State Blinken’s severe strictures on China’s infringements of a rules based international order on various issues, Politburo member Yang Jiechi hit back brutally, decrying US democracy, castigating America’s racism, calling it the champion of cyberattacks, rejecting the notion that western nations represent global public opinion, and, most significantly, stating that the US lacked the qualifications to speak to China from a position of strength, now or even 20 or 30 years earlier. Yang Jiechi may have intended to say all this in private but felt compelled to do so in public to show to the domestic and international audience that China will not be bullied and will deal with the US as an equal. If he had reacted meekly, it would have been a blow to China’s prestige and its self-image. It appears that after the public spat the two sides got down to business calmly on the agenda items , with serious differences over Taiwan emerging and raising US concerns that this could become a flash point if Xi Jinping was determined to achieve reunification, by force, if necessary. There was no commitment by the US side to meet again despite persistent probing by Yang Jiechi to elicit a response.

With China and Russia in the cross-hairs of the Biden government, it is not surprising that both countries have closed ranks against the US. Lavrov and Wang Yi rejected US calls for “a rules-based order” and proposed a summit of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members to be held “to establish direct dialogue …in the interests of maintaining global stability”. With the sharper US divisions with China and Russia it is unclear what the P5 summit could achieve concretely, especially as the representative nature of the UN Security Council as currently constituted is questioned in large parts of the world.

Regrettably, a new version of the Cold War might now be taking shape. In the developing scenario, it is very important that the India-Russia dialogue is strengthened so that the implications of the new developments and the compulsions of the two countries are better understood bilaterally.

From our partner International Affairs

Doctor of Philosophy, Foreign Secretary to the Government of India (2001-2002), Ambassador to Russia (2004-2007)

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South Asia

Afghanistan: the US and NATO withdrawal and future prospects

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On April 14, the United States of America announced that it would withdraw all its troops stationed in Afghanistan from May 1 to September 11, 2021. On the same day, NATO also said it would coordinate with the White House military to initiate the withdrawal.

The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has actually been going on since the Soviet invasion of that unfortunate country on December 24, 1979.

What are the plans of NATO and the United States? How will the situation in Afghanistan change in the future?

Regarding the US announcement of the deadline for troop withdrawal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that the Afghan government respects the US government’s decision to withdraw its troops by the agreed date.

According to the Associated Press, there were 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan before May 1, far below the peak of over 110,000 in 2011.

According to the websites of the Financial Times and theDeutsche Welle, some ten thousand soldiers from the 36 NATO Member States and other US allies are currently stationed in Afghanistan, including as many as 895 Italian soldiers, as well as 1,300 Germans, 750 Brits, 619 Romanians, 600 Turks, etc.

President Trump’s previous Administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan in February 2020, setting May 1, 2021 as the deadline for NATO to begin withdrawing from that country. The Washington Post reported that after the current US government issued the withdrawal statement, the Taliban immediately said that if the United States violated the peace agreement and did not withdraw its troops in Afghanistan, the situation would get worse and one of the parties to the agreement would take responsibility for it.

This year is the twentieth since the United States started the war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The war in Afghanistan is the United States’ longest overseas war, and has killed over 2,300 US soldiers and wounded some 20,000 people, at a cost of over 1 trillion US dollars.

Although the United States and its allies attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the situation in Afghanistan has been turbulent for a long time, with over a hundred thousand Afghan civilian casualties in the fighting.

According to The New York Times, both Parties’ members of the US Congress have differing views on the consequences of withdrawal. According to the newspaper, Republicans and some Democrats believe that the troop withdrawal will encourage the Taliban insurgency, while others believe it is necessary to put an end to this indefinite war.

But what considerations can be made for the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan?

It is well known that the purpose of the United States in taking the war to Afghanistan was a very heavy measure of retaliation against al-Qaeda, which had organised the terrorist attacks of September 11, and against the Taliban regime that protected the top leaders of that terrorist organisation. Although al-Qaeda has not been destroyed, it is unlikely to create similar problems. The United States has achieved its strategic goals and is no longer involved in East Asia’s tactics and strategy.

The interests of NATO (considering its individual Member States) in Afghanistan are fewer than those of the United States. As a military alliance with the United States, the achievement of US strategic goals means that NATO’s equal strategic goals have also been achieved. Hence, rather than continuing to run the risk of confronting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after US military withdrawals, NATO is more willing to remove the “political burden” as soon as possible.

While announcing the terms of the withdrawal, the White House has stated that the threat of extremist organisations such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and ISIS is spreading globally and it is therefore meaningless to concentrate forces in Afghanistan, with a steady expansion of its military cycle. At the same time, however, the White House has stated that after withdrawal, diplomatic and counter-terrorism mechanisms will be reorganised in Afghanistan to face security challenges. Hence, from the US perspective, there is currently a greater terrorist threat than al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The prospectsfor advancing the Indo-Pacific regional strategy to oppose China also means that it would be counterproductive for the United States to remain in Afghanistan any longer. Even after the troop withdrawal, there will be insecurity in Afghanistan. That being the case, however, the United States will still find ways and means to support the Afghan regime and the armed forces of the Kabul government.

The Washington Post has also reported statements by a Pentagon official who has stressed that Afghanistan is a landlocked country: consequently, once US and NATO forces withdraw, one of the biggest challenges will be how to effectively monitor and combat extremist organisations and resist threats to US security: at that distance it will be even more difficult without sea landings.

According to Reuters, the CIA predicts that the possibility of a further US-Afghan peace deal is little and has warned that once the United States and its allies withdraw, it will be difficult to stop the Taliban.

The Afghan government forces currently control Kabul and other large cities, but the Taliban are present in more than half of the country’s territory and rural areas. In the future, the possibility of a Taliban counter-offensive cannot be ruled out.

Great Britain’s The Guardian has commented that the years of war have generally made Afghans feel a strong sense of insecurity and the withdrawal of troops will not bring much comfort to the local population. According to the London-based newspaper, for the United States this is yet another war that cannot be won.

According to experts, there are two extreme possibilities in the future situation in Afghanistan. The excellent situation is the one in which the less extremist wing of the Taliban mediates so that, once the United States withdraws, the Taliban can gradually move from being an extremist organisation to being an internal administrative one and then negotiate with the legitimate government supported by the United Nations: this would mean a long-term peace after forty-two years of war.

Under extremely unfavourable circumstances, instead, the Afghan government forces would overestimate their military strength and intend to continue the war alone against their traditional opponents, at which point peace negotiations between the two sides would break down.

This would mean falling again into a prolonged civil war and into eternal war.

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Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN

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Bhashan Char. Image source: dhakatribune.com

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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