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East Asia

China Seeks to Boost its Role in the Arctic

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As of late, China has increased its engagement within the Arctic region. Natural resources, as well as new, trans-oceanic trade routes motivate Beijing to seek larger space for itself. As the region is effectively a closed one, China has to partner with regional states. So far Russia played this role, with two countries getting closer across the board due to common opposition to the US. Yet, increasingly China has looked to other players and its ambitions and independent exploration of the Arctic are sometimes at odds with Russian national interests.

Recently, as a result of climate change, the Arctic has witnessed a significant increase in political and economic interest from major powers  scrambling to boost their presence in the region. As a so-called non-Arctic state, China is the most prominent actor seeking to become a major stakeholder in the future geopolitics of the uninhabited region.

Geographically, however, China is a less obvious player. Its closest territory is thousands of kilometers away from the generally agreed-upon perimeter in the Bering Strait. Nevertheless, China stepped into the region in 1925 with signing of the Spitsbergen Treaty, which attests to the sovereignty of Norway over the Archipelago of Spitsbergen and also gives equal rights for trade activities on the islands to all signed parties (as of today 46 signatories). Up until now, China traces the basis for its legitimate role in the Arctic affairs to the Treaty. 

However, China’s active engagement is a more recent development, starting in 2013, when China became one of the 13 observer states of the Arctic Council. The Polar Silk Road – an integral part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – was introduced in 2017. Then in June 2018, Beijing announced plans to build its first 30,000-ton nuclear icebreaker, making China the second country (after Russia) to possess nuclear icebreakers. In the same year, China released a much anticipated white paper entitled “China’s Arctic Policy”, wherein it outlined its motivations, referring to itself as a “near-Arctic state.” 

The paper’s claims are explained by the geographic proximity to the region as developments in the Arctic environment have downstream impacts on the China’s climate system and by extension its economy. Beijing advocates maintenance of Arctic passageways as international waters and that developments in the region are of global significance bearing on the interests of the whole international community and not just the Arctic states. This sentiment is reflected in the famous statement by the admiral Yin Zhuo of the People’s Liberation Army Navy that “the North Pole and the sea area around the North Pole belong to the commonwealth of the people of the world, and as China has one-fifth of the world’s population, its role in the Arctic is very much not being absent”. 

Engagement with Russia: Creating a Common Front?

Critical to understanding China’s evolving position in the Arctic is Russia. Both are pressured by the US in many areas across the Eurasian landmass and the Arctic seems to be no exception.

China has cleverly leveraged the pressure on Russia from the West to gain Moscow’s approval for observer state status in the Arctic Council. Before 2013 Russia was vehemently against China’s inclusion. For instance, in 2012, Russia blocked Chinese vessels from operating in the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

As the Russia-West ties deteriorated further after 2013, China’s activities in the Arctic grew in quantity and quality. For example, Russian natural gas giant Novatek and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) joined forces on a venture to fund the Yamal liquified natural gas (LNG) project, one-fifth of which was owned by CNPC. After the Western sanctions and the withdrawal of ExxonMobil and Eni from the Yamal project, Russia turned to China. Chinese Silk Road Fund stepped in to purchase a 9.9 percent stake, increasing the China-owned shares to 29.9 percent.

Though initially against Chinese presence, Russia now partially sees it as a boon to balance the West’s and NATO’s intentions to enhance their military capabilities in the region. 

Competition Heating Up in the Arctic?

Though analysts often predict upcoming Russia-China competition in Central Asia or the Middle East, the Arctic stands out the most in this regard. Moscow now has to accommodate Beijing’s expanding interests and activities along with its own plans of military infrastructure expansion. This means that Russia had to reverse its long-standing policy of the Arctic being managed exclusively by the littoral states. With the Chinese presence, the pursuit of regionalization of the Arctic is no longer realistic.

Though cooperative in many areas across Eurasia, there is a significant possibility of mutual distrust in the Arctic due to Beijing’s often independent steps in the region. For instance, China has committed resources to conducting numerous scientific research expeditions, seeking to develop its “identity” as an Arctic state. These expeditions also help  China to establish strategic access to resources in the arctic for future extraction, with the help of research stations. Moreover, expeditions also enable China to gain experience in navigating in the harsh Arctic temperatures. In 2019 Beijing sent its first icebreaker, Xuelong 2, to take part in 36th Antarctic expedition. Until Xuelong 2, Russia’s monopoly as the operator of the world’s largest fleet of major icebreakers, has been unchallenged. . 

China’s pursuit of raw materials in the Arctic adds to long-present worries in Moscow about its eastern neighbor’s vision of Russia as an unequal partner serving Beijing’s expanding energy needs.

Moreover, to China, Russia is but one of the players in the region. China has been intent on expanding its cooperation with other players too, especially, Iceland and Greenland. Both have seen significant Chinese investment. The two territories have large amounts of raw materials and are strategically located which would allow China to have additional passages, beyond the Bering Strait, for entering the Arctic. In the long run, these expanding partnerships would diminish Beijing’s dependence on Moscow’s benevolence and strengthen China’s negotiating position.

Long-term Perspective

Though the region is not likely to become a hotbed for a China-Russia rivalry in the short term, silent competition will nonetheless be present. Russia might be calculating that, overall, China’s activities in the Arctic will add weight to Moscow’s position in the region, which itself is increasingly under scrutiny from Western countries and NATO. China on the other hand will cleverly maneuver between the region’s powers to gain more legal rights to operate freely in the Arctic. It will also pursue closer partnerships with littoral states which will even out its dependence on Russia. Scientific expeditions will continue which will allow Beijing to collect precious information, mapping out resource-rich areas for future exploration.

In the longer run, China’s energy appetite will be driving Beijing toward a more activist stance in the Arctic. The introduction of homemade icebreakers is perhaps the most visible development. As the NSR will come into operation, Chinese financial presence in the region is likely to increase. This could come in a number of ways such as full or partial ports ownership of ports or investments in the raw material extraction areas. This also could go hand in hand with an establishment of a more permanent scientific presence which eventually could evolve into a semi-military ambition. 

Facing this long-term possibility, an ideal scenario for Moscow would be the development of the NSR with Chinese participation, but exclusively on Russian military and security terms. But the Chinese vision is different. Military presence follows deep economic interests. This happened in Central Asia where China operates a military base in Tajikistan. Same goes for several countries in the Indian Ocean where the “string of pearls” – China-funded or owned ports have emerged. Doing this without the approval of the Arctic littoral states would be impossible, which means that Beijing will have to exploit divisions among them. The current Russia-West standoff plays into the Chinese hands. 

Clever play could involve Chinese economic clout. As Russia is in dire need of finances for the infrastructure in northern Eurasia, Chinese will be more welcome than others – contingent upon the fact that the rivalry with the West continues.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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East Asia

Who would bell the China cat?

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If the G-7 and NATO china-bashing statements are any guide, the world is in for another long interregnum of the Cold War (since demise of the Soviet Union). The G-7 leaders called upon China to “respect human rights in its Xinjiang region” and “allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy” and “refrain from any unilateral action that could destabilize the East and South China Seas”, besides maintaining “peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits”.

China’s tit-for-tat response

The Chinese mission to the European Union called upon the NATO not to exaggerate the “China threat theory”

Bitter truths

Amid the pandemic, still raging, the world is weary of resuscitating Cold War era entente. Even the G-7 members, Canada and the UK appear to be lukewarm in supporting the US wish to plunge the world into another Cold War. Even the American mothers themselves are in no mood to welcome more coffins in future wars. Importance of the G-7 has been whittled down by G-20. 

Presumptions about the China’s cataclysmic rise are unfounded. Still, China is nowhere the US gross National Product. China’s military budget is still the second largest after the US. It is still less than a third of Washington’s budget to be increased by 6.8 per cent in 2021.

India’s role

India claims to be a natural ally of the G-7 in terms of democratic “values”. But the US based Freedom House has rated India “partly free because of its dismal record in persecution of minorities. Weakened by electoral setbacks in West Bengal, the Modi government has given a free hand to religious extremists. For instance, two bigots, Suraj Pal Amu and Narsinghanand Saraswati have been making blasphemous statements against Islam at press conferences and public gatherings.

India’s main problem

Modi government’s mismanagement resulted in shortage of vaccine and retroviral drugs. The healthcare system collapsed under the mounting burden of fatalities.  

Media and research institutions are skeptical of the accuracy of the death toll reported by Indian government.

The New York Times dated June 13, 2021 reported (Tracking Corona virus in India: Latest Map and case Count) “The official COVID-19 figures in India grossly under-estimate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”. The Frontline dated June 4, 2021 reported “What is clear in all these desperate attempts is the reality that the official numbers have utterly lost their credibility in the face of the biggest human disaster in independent India (V. Sridhar, India’s gigantic death toll due to COVID-19 is  thrice  the official numbers”, The frontline, June 4, 2021). It adds “More than 6.5 lakh Indians, not the 2.25 lakh reported officially are estimated to have died so far and at best a million more are expected to die by September 2021. The Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that actual Indian casualties may be 0.654 million (6.54 lakh), not the official count of 0.221 million (2.21 lakh as on May 6 when the report was released. That is a whopping three times the official numbers, an indicator of the extent of under-reporting”.

Epidemiologist Dr. Feigl-ding told India Today TV on April, 16, 2021 that “actual number of COVID-19 cases in India can be five or six times higher than the tally right now” (“Actual COVID-19 cases in India may be 5 to 10 times higher, says epidemiologist. India Today TV April 16, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India’s animosity against China is actuated by expediency. There is no chance of a full-blown war between China and India as the two countries have agreed not to use firepower in border skirmishes, if any. Modi himself told the All-party conference that not an inch of Indian territory has been ceded to China. In May this year, the Army Chief General M M. Naravane noted in an interview: “There has been no transgression of any kind and the process of talks is continuing.”

It is not China but the Quad that is disturbing unrest in China’s waters.

History tells the USA can sacrifice interests of its allies at the altar of self interest. India sank billions of dollars in developing the Chabahar Port. But, India had to abandon it as the US has imposed sanctions on Iran.

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East Asia

Xinjiang? A Minority Haven Or Hell

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While the G7 meets under the shadow of Covid 19 and the leaders of the most prosperous nations on earth are focused on rebuilding their economies, a bloodless pogrom is being inflicted on a group of people on the other side of the world.

In this new era, killing people is wasteful and could bring the economic wrath of the rest of the world.  No, it is better to brainwash them, to re-educate them, to destroy their culture, to force them to mold themselves into the alien beings who have invaded their land in the name of progress, and who take the best new jobs that sprout with economic development.  Any protest at these injustices are treated severely.

Amnesty International has published a new 160-page report this week on Xinjiang detailing the horrors being perpetrated on Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  Amnesty has simultaneously announced a campaign on their behalf.

Persecution, mass imprisonment in what can best be described as concentration camps, intensive interrogation and torture are actions that come under the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’.  More than 50 people who spent time in these camps contributed first-hand accounts that form the substance of the report.  It is not easy reading for these people have themselves suffered maltreatment even torture in many instances.

The UN has claimed that 1.5 million Muslims (Uighurs, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks) are in these internment camps and China’s claims of re-education camps made to sound as benign as college campuses are patently false.

People report being interviewed in police stations and then transferred to the camps.  Their interrogation was frequently conducted on ‘tiger chairs’:   The interviewee is strapped to a metal chair with leg irons and hands cuffed in such a manner that the seating position soon becomes exceedingly painful.  Some victims were hooded; some left that way for 24 hours or more, and thus were forced to relieve themselves, even defecate, where they sat.  Beatings and sleep deprivation were also common.

Activities were closely monitored and they were mostly forbidden to speak to other internees including cell mates.  Trivial errors such as responding to guards or other officials in their native language instead of Mandarin Chinese resulted in punishment.

Amnesty’s sources reported the routine was relentless.  Wake up at 5am.  Make bed — it had to be perfect.  A flag-raising and oath-taking ceremony before breakfast at 7 am.  Then to the classroom.  Back to the canteen for lunch.  More classes after.  Then dinner.  Then more classes before bed.  At night two people had to be on duty for two hours monitoring the others leaving people exhausted.  You never see sunlight while you are there, they said.  That was because they were never taken outside as is done in most prisons.

The re-education requires them to disavow Islam, stop using their native language, give up cultural practices, and become Mandarin-speaking ‘Chinese’.

Such are the freedoms in Xi Jinping’s China.  If China’s other leaders prior to Mr. Xi effected moderate policies in concert with advisers, it is no longer the case.  Mr. Xi works with a small group of like minds.  He has also removed the two-term or eight-year limit on being president.  President for life as some leaders like to call themselves, then why not Mr. Xi.  His anti-democratic values make him eminently qualified. 

An enlightened leader might have used the colorful culture of these minorities to attract tourists and show them the diversity of China.  Not Mr. Xi, who would rather have everyone march in lockstep to a colorless utopia reminiscent of the grey clothing and closed-collar jackets of the Maoist era. 

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East Asia

Looking back on India-China ties, one year past the Galwan incident

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Two nuclear-armed neighbouring countries with a billion-plus people each, geographically positioned alongside a 3,488-km undemarcated border in the high Himalayas. This is the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Differences in perception of alignment of this border for both sides have contributed to a seemingly unending dispute.

Chinese unilateral attempt to change status quo in 2020

One year back, on 15 June 2020, a clash between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley of eastern Ladakh turned bloody, resulting in the death of 20 soldiers in the former side and four in the latter side. It was an unfortunate culmination of a stand-off going on since early May that year, triggered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops encountering Indian troops who were patrolling on their traditional limits.

It was followed by amassing of troops in large number by China on its side and some of them crossed the line over without any provocation, thereby blocking and threatening India’s routine military activities on its side of the traditionally accepted border. It was a unilateral attempt by the Chinese Communist Party-run government in Beijing to forcefully alter the status quo on the ground.

The LAC as an idea

Over the years, the LAC has witnessed one major war resulting from a Chinese surprise attack on India in 1962 and periodic skirmishes along the various friction points of the border, as seen in the years 1967, 1975, 1986-87, 2013, 2017, and the most recent 2020 Galwan Valley incident, the last being the worst in five decades. Post-Galwan, the optics appeared too high on both sides.

The LAC as an idea emerged with the annexation of Buddhist Tibet by Chinese communist forces in the early 1950s, bringing China to India’s border for the first time in history. This idea just emerged and was taking shape through the Jawaharlal Nehru-Zhou Enlai letters of correspondence that followed.

In 1962, while the world was engrossed upon the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chinese inflicted a huge military and psychological debacle on unprepared and outnumbered Indian soldiers in a month-long war along this border.

Even to this date, there is still no mutually agreeable cartographic depiction of the LAC. It varies on perceptions.

What could’ve led to 2020 stand-off?

One of the reasons that led to the current new low in India-China ties, other than differing perceptions, is the improvement in Indian infrastructure capabilities along the rough mountainous terrains of the Himalayan borders and its resolve to be on par with China in this front. This has been a cause of concern in Chinese strategic calculations for its Tibetan border.

The carving up of the Indian union territory of Ladakh with majority Buddhists from the erstwhile Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 has indeed added to Beijing’s concerns over the area.

For the past few years, India has been upfront in scaling up its border infrastructure throughout the vast stretch of LAC, including in eastern Ladakh, where the 2020 stand-off took place. There is a serious trust deficit between India and China today, if not an evolving security dilemma.

Post-Galwan engagement

Several rounds of talks were held at the military and the diplomatic levels after the Galwan incident, the working-level mechanisms got renewed and new action plans were being formed before the process of disengagement finally began.

The foreign ministers of both countries even met in Moscow on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in September, which was followed by a BRICS summit where Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping came face-to-face in November, although virtually.

By February 2021, the process of disengagement of troops gained momentum on the ground around the Pangong lake area. So far, eleven rounds of talks were held at the military level on the ground at the border. But, the disengagement is yet to be fully completed in the friction points of Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains.

Diplomacy is gone with the wind

All the bilateral border agreements and protocols for confidence-building that were signed between the both countries in the years 1993, 1996, 2005, 2012 and 2013 were rendered futile by the Chinese PLA’s act of belligerence in Galwan.

The spirit of two informal Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summits to build trust after the 2017 Doklam standoff, one in Wuhan, China (2018) and the other in Mamallapuram, India (2019) was completely gone with the wind. This is further exacerbated by the Chinese practice of ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, which is clearly undiplomatic in nature.

India’s diversification of fronts

Coming to the maritime domain, India has upped the ante by the joint naval exercises (Exercise Malabar 2020) with all the Quad partners in November, last year. Thereby, New Delhi has opened a new front away from the Himalayan frontiers into the broader picture of India-China strategic rivalry. Australia joined the exercise, after 13 years, with India, Japan, and the United States, a move indicative of militarisation or securitisation of the Quad partnership.

Recently, India has been consolidating its position over the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, lying southeast to the mainland, and close to the strategic Strait of Malacca, through which a major proportion of China’s crude oil imports pass through before venturing out to the ports of South China Sea.

Economic ties, yearning to decouple

Last year, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar remarked that border tensions cannot continue along with co-operation with China in other areas. In this regard, the Narendra Modi government has been taking moves to counter China in the economic front by banning a large number of Chinese apps, citing security reasons, thereby costing the Chinese companies a billion-size profitable market. The Indian government has also refused to allow Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE to participate in India’s rollout of the 5G technology.

Moreover, India, Australia and Japan have collectively launched a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in 2020 aimed at diversifying supply chain risks away from one or a few countries, apparently aimed at reducing their dependence on China. In terms of trade, India is still struggling to decouple with China, a key source of relatively cheap products for Indian exporters, particularly the pandemic-related pharmaceutical and related supplies in the current times.

But, the Indian government’s recent domestic policies such as “Self-Reliant India” (Atmanirbhar Bharat) have contributed to a decline in India’s trade deficit vis-à-vis China to a five-year low in 2020, falling to around $46 billion from around $57 billion in 2019.

The broader picture

The border dispute remains at the core of a range of issues that define the overall India-China bilateral relations. Other issues include trade and economics, Beijing’s close ties with Islamabad, the succession of Dalai Lama who has taken asylum in India since 1959 and the issue of Tibetan refugees living in India, educational ties, and the strategic rivalry in India’s neighbourhood, i.e., South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region, among others.

Chinese belligerence has led India to find its place easily in the evolving ‘new Cold War’

The more China turns aggressive at its border with India, the more it will bring India close to the United States and the West. Despite India’s traditional posture of indifference to allying itself exclusively with a power bloc, in the recently concluded G7 summit, India referred to the grouping of liberal democracies as a ‘natural ally’.

India has been raising the need for a free, open and rules-based Indo-Pacific in as many multilateral forums as possible, a concept which China considers as a containment strategy of the United States. Possibly, India might also join the G7’s newly announced infrastructure project for developing countries in an appropriate time, as it is initiated as a counterweight to China’s multi trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

There was a time in the past when the former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to lead Asia by cooperating with China. Considering today’s changed geopolitical realities and power dynamics, nowhere in anyone’s wildest dreams such an idea would work out. Prime Minister Modi’s muscular foreign policy imperatives are aligning well with the Joe Biden-led Western response to the looming common threat arising from Beijing.

Today, encountering Xi Jinping’s grand strategy of Chinese domination of the world (by abandoning its yesteryear policy of ‘peaceful rise’) is a collective endeavour of peace-loving democracies around the world, to which Asia is particularly looking forward. Most notably, it comes amid an inescapable web of global economic inter-connectedness, even among rival powers.

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