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An overambitious party state and the perils of imperial overstretch

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Here, I analyse the rise of China under an overambitious Communist Party (CCP), and what it means for the rest of the world, despite all its exceptional domestic accomplishments. How do the CCP’s acts of belligerence in China’s neighbourhood openly challenge the notion of peaceful coexistence?

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The People’s Republic of China is one of the only five remaining ‘politically’ communist states in the world, the others being North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba. On July 1, 2021 the ruling Chinese Communist Party observed its 100th anniversary of establishment with much pomp and splendour in the historic Tiananmen Square of Beijing.

The party was formed by a small group of radical Chinese intellectuals in the eastern city of Shanghai in 1921, without much expectations of ruling a vast country like mainland China in a matter of decades, which was then in its Republican Era that continued till 1949.

The CCP seizes power

With the fall of the nationalist Kuomintang government led by Chiang Kai-shek in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) the communists seized power in Beijing with the proclamation of the People’s Republic on 01 October 1949 by Mao Zedong, then Chairperson of the Communist Party, in Tiananmen Square, a name that would turn infamous after four decades for a brutal crackdown on democratic aspirations by the CCP using the armed forces and the massacre of hundreds of Chinese youths, including university students, in 1989.

The party’s leadership is enshrined in the Chinese constitution and its top leader, the General Secretary, is the de-facto head of the Chinese state. Over the past 72 years many charismatic leaders have occupied this particular post like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and the current leader Xi Jinping, who has been in power since 2012. In times of Xi, the party’s goal has gone beyond the traditional goal of national rejuvenation and state consolidation towards the assertion of might and comprehensive national power.

The centennial: From consolidation to assertion

32 years after the bloody Tiananmen incident, in the same Square, General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech highlighting the CCP’s achievements in front of more than 70,000 attendees, marking the party’s centennial celebrations, followed by glaring military parades, cannon firings and mesmerizing aerial shows by the air force. Other prominent figures present alongside him included former General Secretary Hu Jintao, ex-premier Wen Jiabao, and the respective chief executives of the special administrative regions (SARs) of Hong Kong’s and Macau, over which he said Beijing exercises “overall jurisdiction”.

Among other things, General Secretary Xi stated that realizing China’s complete “reunification” by resolving the Taiwan question is an unshakable commitment and mission of the Communist Party and resolute action will be taken to defeat any attempt toward “Taiwan independence”. This was an indirect political message to the United States.

He also said, “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the great wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. This was a direct message to all democracies of the world that relate with the concerns of the Taiwanese people on the preservation of the island’s democratic system.

By invoking such historical revanchist sentiments of the Chinese people and repeated reiterations of ‘the century of humiliation’ faced by imperial China under colonial powers, Xi Jinping gave a blunt warning to all present-day foreign powers, which includes China’s systemic, strategic and geopolitical adversaries.

By pledging to expand China’s military capabilities and global influence, he reiterated the end of China’s peaceful rise, something which he already hinted two years back, in 2019, when the People’s Republic observed its 70th anniversary. The rhetoric was overly nationalistic in tone, in many ways resembling that of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which also spilled similar toxicity.

The party has indeed led the Chinese state to becoming a formidable economic giant in about three to four decades, starting from 1978, when economic liberalisation ushered in the era of prosperity in the country. The party embraced a self-contradictory capitalist economy since 1978 and has skilfully adjusted itself along opportunistic lines throughout its later history.

Today, the party has about 92 million members out of China’s population of 1.4 billion. The CCP, along with the other four communist countries, has outlived the collapse of the Soviet Union and its affiliated Eastern bloc.

All Chinese leaders have initiated their own signature philosophies as the guiding force of the CCP’s state policy during their respective tenures. It includes, “Hide your strength, bide your time” (Deng Xiaoping), “The Three Represents” (Jiang Zemin), “Scientific Outlook on Development” (Hu Jintao), and the current “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and the “Community with a Shared Future for Humankind”.

The CCP is currently ruling over the world’s most populous nation and an economic superpower. The global power transition is not going to be smooth, while the Western alliance led by the United States is rising up to the new challenge by renewing their alliance. This seems also true considering the party’s hidden agenda to dominate the world on all perceivable aspects of society, primarily by utilizing its superior economic and technological might, supplemented more recently by boosted military capabilities.

Imperial overstretch

The concept of ‘imperial overstretch’ is put forward by Paul Kennedy, a Yale University historian to explain a situation wherein an empire or a major power extends itself beyond its military and economic capabilities, which would eventually lead to its collapse. This was true in the case of rise and fall of powers and leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 and Adolf Hitler in 1945.

In today’s scenario, the 72-year old regime in mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) show signs of such an ‘overstretch’ in its neighbourhood. But, unlike in the distant past, the nations of the world are interconnected and interdependent on each other, making the situation much more complex.

A quote on imperial China, then under the Qing dynasty, often attributed to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte goes like this, “Let China Sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. As said, it turned out that China’s new rulers, the Communist Party, is arguably adept in ‘shaking’ the status quo of peace, using a combination of economic, military and diplomatic tools with both tactical and strategic implications.

For short-term gains, it is antagonizing all the countries that refuse to accept Chinese hegemony in Asia. The CCP often forgets the fact that it has to co-exist peacefully with other nations, or it’s not willing to, and constantly attempts to alter the existing regional and global order and power equations in a unilateral manner.

Both Adolf Hitler and Xi Jinping and his predecessors since Deng Xiaoping were successful enough in building a strong domestic economy and strikingly good enough in bringing in rapid industrialisation of their respective countries, but the real problem lies with its engagement with the rest of the world.

Germany too was incredibly industrialized during Hitler’s regime, but the problem was a lion’s share of it was oriented towards the accomplishment of military objectives. It’s not about how much economic muscle has been built up over the years or what size is the country’s economy but how it is being used in a way jeopardizing the interests of other nations, particularly in the periphery and neighbourhood.

Contentious periphery and neighbourhood

The communist state’s armed forces, which calls itself the People’s Liberation Army has sworn their allegiance to the party and not the Chinese state, unlike democratic countries. It has annexed predominantly Buddhist Tibet in 1951 and much before that predominantly Muslim Xinjiang or East Turkestan was also incorporated into the People’s Republic. Instead of liberating peoples, the communists themselves turned into oppressors.

Today, the CCP is using economics as a tool to correct its political wrongs, particularly in Tibet, where it is intensifying infrastructure development. Once the current Dalai Lama, who is in exile in India, attains nirvana, the CCP will also attempt to install a puppet by diluting the institution of the Dalai Lama itself, thereby jeopardizing the Tibetan culture and religion. This would bring the CCP in collision with India, where tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees live.

Most recently, China has also been trying to exploit unemployment in areas close to Tibet’s border with India, such as the strategic Chumbi Valley wedged between Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state. The CCP has started recruiting militias of Tibetan origin, who are accustomed to high altitude warfare, to fight for the CCP’s armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army. India too has a secretive force comprising of Tibetan refugees, called the Special Frontier Force (SFF). In the event of a flare-up in these areas, it is going to be Tibetans versus Tibetans, fighting on rival sides.

In the Himalayan frontiers, the CCP is engaging in the strategy of ‘salami-slicing’ by laying claims on lands belonging to its Himalayan neighbours – India, Bhutan and Nepal – by making gradual advancements, followed by mobilisation of troops. This was most recently evident in the Galwan incident and standoff, last year, wherein the Chinese laid claims on the entire Galwan Valley, belonging to India, after locking horns with Indian troops.

The CCP makes ten steps forward and later retreats two steps back after negotiations that follow. India and China fought a war in 1962 when the latter unexpectedly attacked and defeated the latter, in a hugely asymmetric war, as an attention diversion tactic to bury Mao’s domestic failures.

Similarly, in the south, Hong Kong’s autonomy has been jeopardized by introducing a draconian national security law last year. This is now being used to crush democratic dissent and freedom of the press, as evident the circumstances leading to the closure of pro-democracy newspaper and CCP-critic Apple Daily, following the arrests of its journalists and seizing of its assets. Democratic gatherings are also banned.

Potential for great power rivalry in the maritime domain

Coming to the Taiwan Strait, there has been an exponential rise in air space incursions by PLA jets in the past few months, indicative of a looming threat of annexation of the self-ruled island state by the CCP.

In the South China Sea, located at the centre of the Indo Pacific region between China and Southeast Asia, the CCP has resurrected an old and legally invalid idea of ‘Nine-Dash Line’ in 2013 to claim over 90% of waters of the sea as its sovereign territory, which overlaps with the legitimate territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of neighbouring countries such as Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia.

However, the recent origins of the CCP’s assertion goes back to late 2000s, when Chinese PLA navy submarines surfaced in the middle of US naval ships engaged in freedom of navigation operations in the East China Sea. It was a kind of political message to the otherwise great power active in the region, the United States.

The Chinese have been openly disregarding international maritime law and the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Seas of 1982, of which Beijing itself is a party, by making such illegal claims. This is nothing but blatant cartographic aggression by the CCP.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in Netherlands has ruled these claims as illegal in a landmark 2016 verdict, which was in favour of the Philippines, a key security ally of the United States in the region. For Manila, it was matter of food security as well, considering the large section of its population that engaged in fisheries as a means to livelihood. But, the dispute still continues, as Beijing decided not to respect the 2016 verdict and naval collisions occur periodically even to this day.

The CCP also has a dispute with Japan, another US ally, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The US always had a security presence in Southeast Asia, the backyard of China, right from the 1950s when SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) existed and the subsequent isolation from the region following the debacle in the Vietnam War. But, at that time China never projected its power in the region, as it did from 2013 onwards with new ambitions for strategic influence. Today, even a once adversary Vietnam finds strategic convergence with the United States, considering the South China Sea dispute.

The United States greatly values its right of freedom of navigation and conducts passage exercises in maritime regions across the world. In the recent past, this has increasingly come in direct collision with China-claimed territorial waters when US ships frequently encounter Chinese ships in the region. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear in July 2020 that “the South China Sea is not China’s maritime empire”.

Last year, an annual report released by the Pentagon showed that the People’s Republic of China has built the largest navy in the world, surpassing even the US Navy, in terms of overall battle force. In 2020, China had approximately 350 ships and submarines in comparison to 293 of the US.

As part of the PLA Navy’s modernisation efforts in the recent past, it has embarked on a rigorous ship-building programme that includes “submarines, surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and auxiliary ships as well as indigenous weapons, sensors and command and control systems”, the report stated.

But, the dragon is still far behind the eagle in terms of overseas bases and comparative operational reach. This means, China is using this enormous amount of naval might in the contentious seas in its backyard, the South and East China Seas, aimed at its maritime neighbours.

The Indian Ocean too is vulnerable to potential Chinese militarization in the near future, particularly in places such as Sri Lanka, which is trapped in Chinese debt-trap. The first Chinese overseas military base in Djibouti and the strategic Gwadar port in Pakistan, where the BRI’s maritime route meets land, are already operational.

The other side of the China story

One of the many things that China admirers and the left-leaning fraternity of intelligentsia, academia and the media in democratic countries keep on articulating is the way China rapidly modernized and industrialised in the past three to four decades and how it lifted about 800 million of its citizens out of poverty, and crediting that success as the basis for legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party among the Chinese people. They say China achieved the feat by not subjugating other countries, unlike the West.

But, in fact what they comfortably neglect or rather doesn’t wish to mention is how that is achieved and how the original communist ideology is tweaked to the highest extent possible for that purpose or how sustainable that development model is. They don’t wish to say how the northern and eastern frontier provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, which was culturally never part of historical China Proper or the Chinese civilization, was forcefully annexed, ‘colonized’, its natural resources drained and subjected to ‘Han’ization of those regions’ demography.

They seldom talk about the murder of democracy in Hong Kong or the threat of Beijing’s potential invasion of Taiwan. In Xinjiang, reportedly over a million Uyghur Muslims are arbitrarily put in re-education camps where alleged forced labour is taking place, which supposedly includes production for world markets.

One of the other tactics followed by the CCP in the 1990s was pretending to abide by and be part of the liberal international world in order to convince the United States other Western countries to support China to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which it ultimately accomplished in 2001, thereby beginning a new era of international competition wherein cheap Chinese products began flooding world markets in a matter of few years.

From ‘peaceful’ to ‘disruptive’ rise

The CCP has reshaped the rules of geo-economics since early 2010s by initiating a spree of investments and infrastructure projects in trillions of dollars in vulnerable countries and regions of the world such as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Africa, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being its core. Many a times it leads the country into a spiral of inescapable debt-trap. By doing so, the CCP envisions positioning China as the centre of global economy and trade, which it already more or less is.

It has been trying to split the West and the United States by fishing in troubled waters using the same geoeconomic tools by leading groupings such as Cooperation between China and 17 Central and Eastern European Countries (17+1) and also by engaging Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, where it is building an alternative waterway to the Panama Canal that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Moreover, Beijing sides with Moscow to take on the Western alliance. If the world’s democracies fail to tame the dragon, it might plunge into another war, more possibly in the Taiwan Strait or in the South China Sea or may be even in the Indian Ocean.

There was a time when ‘peaceful rise’ was the party’s policy orientation as advocated by Deng Xiaoping and his immediate successors. Today, under Xi, it has grown into a global ambition supported by a daunting grand strategy, often with disruptive characteristics.

The need for balancing singular concentration of power

For the first time, in June 2021, the 30-member NATO alliance and the G7 acknowledged China as a systemic challenge to be handled with, other than Russia. New infrastructural projects are also in the offing to counter its Chinese equivalents. New balance of power coalitions are taking shape such as the Quad grouping of democracies, consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Democratic nations are coming together in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms to prevent one disruptive power from dominating others. The Biden administration is heavily investing on Washington’s diplomatic capital in renewing America’s alliances across the world that was put in a sorry state to the advantage of China by his predecessor. He is building on coalitions and partnerships intensified by the previous administration, as well.

The world today is dealing with a delusional power that exhibits an increasingly confrontational style of diplomacy, often called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ that seldom cares about co-existing with other countries in peace or respecting each other.

So, there is strong need today for preventing singular concentration of power and for balancing power with the involvement of more responsible actors that is willing to coexist peacefully, so do the need for a new set of confidence-building measures among rivals, drawing lessons from the past.

A larger task of this power balancing is at hand for the world’s democracies, which includes the preservation of rules-based international order, prevention of expansionist policies from gaining ground, and the promotion of alternative development models with sustainability at its core and without ulterior motives.

Bejoy Sebastian is an independent journalist based in India who regularly writes, tweets, and blogs on issues relating to international affairs and geopolitics, particularly of the Asia-Pacific region. He also has an added interest in documentary photography. Previously, his bylines have appeared in The Diplomat, The Kochi Post, and Delhi Post.

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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