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Crumbling CBM Frameworks and the Risk of Inadvertent Escalation

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In 1962, the world witnessed the most precarious event in ages. The USA and USSR were engaged in a perilous standoff over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba and a small error or miscalculation could have reverted humanity into the Stone Age. Auspiciously for humanity, the crisis de-escalated and begot the first Confidence Building Measure (CBM) of the Cold War: the famed hotline communication between Washington and Moscow. In the subsequent years, the two superpowers concluded numerous CBMs, which significantly enabled mitigation of Cold War tensions thereby lowering the annihilation endangerments haunting humanity. In the meantime, the CBMs were aggrandized to assume a global scope after several countries in the geographical zones adapted CBMs as a viable tool to ease tensions. Other areas, however, saw very little progress on CBMs thus retaining their “flashpoint” status.

The assorted trend of CBMs extended into the post-Cold War period and numerous CBMs covering arms control, economics, and human rights issues saw acme in some regions but could not make noteworthy headway in other troubled zones. The piece succinctly discourses the CBMs’ trends during post-Cold War in four important regions namely Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, and South Asia.

Europe – regarded as a dreamland for liberal peace and post-Cold War CBMs – is the geographical sphere to host the 21st century’s potentially most risky conflict. Starting with the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its support to armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, numerous efforts to avoid escalation went in vain primarily owing to the widening trust deficit between Russia and US-led NATO, and finally, the full-fledge Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 resuscitated the Cold War-style East vs West conflict. Even before, the resurgence of Russia under Putin and the withdrawal of the USA from the ABM and INF treaties had dealt a jolting blow to CBMs between the two military superpowers.

By implication, the Russian invasion of Ukraine proved to be the last nail in the coffin of the Russia-West post-Cold War conciliation. The European countries swiftly transitioned to revert mostly economic CBMs with Russia instituted over decades while NATO wholeheartedly accepted membership applications from previously nonaligned Finland and Sweden. The landmark developments herald a new era of intense and even more perilous security competition in Europe and as the trust deficit between the contending parties looms highest in decades, the space for CBMs as a tool to reduce tensions has been further curtailed.

The most drastic turnaround on CBMs post-Cold War took place in the Middle East. The traditional antagonists Israel and the Arab nations after CBMs are currently making headways in strengthening peace. This despite the root cause of tensions – the Israel-Palestine Conflict – remains outstanding, however, without evoking much interest or support from the new generation of Arab rulers who are least beholden to the Palestinian cause.

The expansion of Iranian influence and Iran’s nuclear program, nonetheless, have added new dimensions to the tensions in the Middle East with the risk of the USA also getting embroiled in a hot war with Iran. Nevertheless, given the destructive concomitants of such an undertaking, the USA and its Arab allies have been cautious not to escalate tensions with Iran. The arduously reached Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program could have contributed meaningfully to reducing tensions in the region but was torpedoed by the Trump administration, which also pushed the Middle East to the brink of war by recklessly eliminating the top commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Following, the Biden administration’s endeavors to return to the deal and persuade Iran to reverse its actions that belie JCPOA encountered impediments and the negotiations have lately become hostage to Russia-West resuscitated powers struggle. Though the Biden administration has been carefully trudging the fine line in the Middle East, with minimum CBMs in place between the USA-led coalition and Iran, inadvertent escalation in the region remains plausible.

The Asia-Pacific region currently hosts the two most powerful countries on the planet, the USA and China, and despite both sides pledging to manage their relationship, the vicious dynamics of great power politics have hindered the institutionalization of CBMs. Emboldened by its risen status, China is expanding its military outreach in Western Pacific – areas traditionally dominated by the USA and its allies – and with no existing CBMs in the form of the operational framework for the contending militaries, the conflict avoidance strategy by both the sides is prone to failure raising the risks of inadvertent escalation, especially in volatile areas like the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. To add is the intensifying techno-economic war and the absence of arms control CBMs between the two sides, which clubbed together are speedily rendering the strategic environment in Asia-Pacific more challenging than ever.

The most troubled zone in Asia-Pacific, Korean Peninsula, has seen many ups and downs in tensions during the last three decades. North Korea went nuclear in 2006 and since then has been using nuclear tests occasionally and missile tests frequently to pressurize its adversaries. Several conflict avoidance strategies were adopted by the USA and its regional allies, specifically during President Trump’s reign. In June 2018, Trump became the first US President to meet a North Korean leader followed by another inconclusive meeting the next year hosted by Vietnam. In June 2019, Trump became the first US President to step foot on North Korean soil as he walked alongside Kim Jong Un from the demilitarized zone into North Korea only to walk back into South Korea. Though the optics were high, the meetings were largely the result of President Trump’s eccentric personality and lacked Washington’s institutional backup. Fast forward to 2022, even the CBM forbidding the missile tests has been abandoned by Pyongyang and the relationship between the two countries is back to square one with missile tests by North Korea acting as a primary destabilizer and raising the risks of inadvertent escalation.

Among the regions that maintained their “flashpoint” status, South Asia holds the distinction. The rollercoaster of hostilities and parleys between India and Pakistan makes South Asia one of the most volatile regions of the world. In 1988, the two countries signed a landmark agreement prohibiting attacks on each other’s nuclear installations, and after the countries declared their nuclear status in 1998, the Lahore Declaration and MoU marked noteworthy CBMs only to be rendered ineffective by the outbreak of the Kargil War. Following the Twin Peak crisis, General Musharraf’s regime made headways in negotiations with India, and many CBMs were concluded, most notably the 2003 ceasefire agreement, while out-of-the-box solutions were considered to resolve the festering Kashmir Conflict. The 2008 Mumbai attacks proved to be a tipping point in India-Pakistan negotiations and since then no new substantive and institutionalized dialogue has taken place between the two countries, apart from occasional confidence-building initiatives, which are usually relapsed by the outbreak of a new crisis. Previously agreed dialogue frameworks and CBMs, nonetheless, are being followed despite the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issuing vile threats to undermine some of those, such as his threat to deprive Pakistan of its share of water settled under the landmark Indus water treaty. The perturbing propensity is further compounded by Modi’s intertwining of India’s domestic electoral politics with anti-Pakistan jingoism. In 2019, after having failed to deliver on his socio-economic promises during his first five years as India’s PM, Modi tapped Pulwama Crisis to secure a landslide victory in Indian elections but in the process pushed the region to the brink of nuclear holocaust. As the things stand, the trust deficit between the two countries is predictably high, and though the hostilities along the LoC have ceased thanks to a UAE-brokered resumption of ceasefire, the breakdown in meaningful dialogue persists essentially creating a veritable stalemate.

Hamdan Khan is currently working as Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute Islamabad. He is an alumnus of the National Defence University Islamabad and has previously worked for the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and the Pakistan Council on China (PCC). Hamdan studies Global Affairs with a focus on Great-Power Politics, Programs and Policies of Nuclear Weapons States, and Emerging Military Technologies.

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Defense

A war where the machine decides who to kill! (LAWs wars)

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Which country wants to be attacked by an AI-controlled system with no one in command? Which country wants their soldiers to be killed by an autonomous machine, and potentially, some civilians by mistake? The answer is evidently no one! No country wants that. But which country intends to possess such weapons, then the answer is more ambiguous. The last report of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) reflects this. After a week (25-29 July) of discussion at the Palais des Nations, UN Geneva, the adopted report is hollowed without meaningful conclusion or commitments.

Lethal autonomous weapons

Lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) are military system that can autonomously search for and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions. LAWs are also known as killer robots.

Autonomous weapons have existed for many years; for example, land mines trigger and kill or an injury without any human action. With emerging technology, including AI, we understand the interest of certain states to include these technologies in weapons to improve their autonomy. Since the 70s, the US has used the Phalanx CIWS, which can autonomously identify and attack incoming missiles. With AI, its capacities are considerably increased! Continuing with the example of mines, Russia’s anti-personnel mines of the POM-3 type are particularly deadly. They are disseminated in the land of operations but do not explode immediately. When activated, they rise in the air before exploding and causing multiple ravages, which can be fatal within a radius of 16 meters. Equipped with sensors and software, they choose their target, when they explode or not, depending on the identity of the people or equipment that approach. There are, unfortunately, so many other systems that will be too long to cite here. To conclude this part, in Libya in 2020, a Kargu 2 drone hunted down and attacked a human target. According to a report from the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya, published in March 2021. This may have been the first time an autonomous killer robot armed with lethal weaponry attacked human beings. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_robot]

We quickly understand all potential ethical and legal issues. Autonomous systems can make mistakes; who is responsible then? Like mine killed millions of civilians, new systems may have bias and kill unstintingly, with no one to stop them. The range of potential problems is extensive.

A slow-downed convention

For nine years, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons or CCW, also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, has tried to regulate it with its GGE. For the most ambitious, it would be a question of agreeing on a treaty, or another international instrument, which would guarantee the prohibition that a weapon can operate autonomously, i.e., without the intervention of human supervision. Many Latin Americans, and European states are now advocating for this outright ban. The answer is less clear-cut for other states, including the USA. They consent to the prohibition of specific weapon systems as well as to a certain regulation but refuse a binding legal framework. Finally, Russia is slowing down all negotiations and reducing its content.

Russia and the game of consensus

A majority of States are now convinced of the need to act significantly, even asking for more days to debate in 2023. But the main problem is the rule of consensus, which prohibits any discussion breakthrough”.

Many little disagreements, for instance, delegations, wasted time discussing whether the CCW is an appropriate forum or the only appropriate forum for dealing with the issue of autonomous weapons.

These discussions have even been theatrical when Russia attacked many times the presence of civil societies to limit their intervention and participation in informal meetings. It was a tool to slow down the discussion, focusing the debate on organizational points. At the same time, we can also be afraid that this Russian posture is appearing in others GGEs. Meanwhile, some other states, like Israel and India, are discrete and do not oppose it. They probably use this condition to their advantage. Russia is doing all the work for them.

Therefore with the refusal of a few states, all the details about elements and possible measures for an agreement on autonomous weapons were removed. All conclusions about what kinds of control are necessary, and possible processes to achieve that control, were taken out. The present conclusions section just outlines the types of proposals discussed, recognizes ethical perspectives, and repeats the respect for international humanitarian law. It confirms then that states are responsible for wrongful acts in accordance with international law [link to report], so no new laws. 

Not only are the conclusions disappointing, but the way the discussion was carried out was disappointing, and the mandate for 2023 remains uncertain.

We can not wait on CCW, the urgency of the problem is too critical.

The slow process is to the advantage of countries using these technologies. The Russian POM-3 mines, for instance, have been used in Ukraine, accordingly to Human Right Watch. The development and deployment by Russia and other countries will continue as long as no agreement is reached. LAWs have to be outlaws! And the CCW seems not to be anymore the right platform.

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Escalating Big Power Contestation on Taiwan: Can It Lead to War?

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Xi Jinping is seeking to hide his humiliation over US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. His premature and unjustifiable warning to the US about the visit caused him embarrassment, and Pelosi’s purposeful visit after the warning not only hyped it, but humiliated him. China is using its Three Warfare Concept  which entails public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare along with aggressive military posturing, air violations, firepower power exhibition and some symbolic economic boycott of Taiwan, thus creating  heightened tension around Taiwan as a face saving exercise to amuse its domestic constituency. China is attempting to turn it as an opportunity to stoke national sentiments in favour of Xi Jinping on ‘Anti America’ theme highlighting Chinese mutilated version of his heroics to ensure that he doesn’t lose out on his third term in the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) later this year.

The US side has likewise been under similar pressures. Following the announcement of Pelosi’s visit and the contentious debate between President Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, the US found itself in a difficult situation. The USA was unable to cancel the trip in response to Xi’s warning because doing so would have indicated that Joe Biden was caving in to Chinese pressure. This would have been catastrophic for the Biden Administration, which is already struggling to recover from the disaster in Afghanistan and the difficulties brought on by the Russia-Ukraine War. Although the visit was a risky move, it is still unclear whether the US will follow it up by replacing strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity to support Taiwan in any prospective Chinese attack or not.

Can it Lead to War?

With unprecedented military posturing by China, live missile fire  East of Taiwan close to its coastline, and US aircraft carrier and maritime forces located not too far, the situation is tense and prone to accidental trigger causing escalation. It does not make any strategic sense for China to invade Taiwan, as it has all the negatives except false bravado, with bright chances of loss of face globally and domestically, in case the operations fail; hence, likely to contend with activities short of war.

Chinese strategist Qiao Liang, a retired PLA Air Force Major General, has warned that taking Taiwan by force is ‘Too Costly’. Chinese redline of “Taiwan going nuclear/declaring independence” has not been crossed as yet, giving no justification for China to cross US red line of ‘Changing status Quo by Force’. Xi Jinping may find it too costly to take such a risk before sealing his third term. The military drills near Taiwan have been conducted by Taiwan and US also in past and  the much publicised blockade of Taiwan through military drills, if prolonged may invite similar military drills by US and other democracies in Malacca Strait too, to block Chinese Sea Lines of Communication, beyond the realm of optics of the current Chinese aggressive posture, and it is well aware of this vulnerability.    

Taiwanese President Tsai has bravely given bold statements during visit of Speaker Pelosi and earlier to take on Chinese aggression. Taiwan with its national spirit, modern arsenal from US, determined armed forces and US backing is unlikely to give a walkover, although the first onslaught of potential offensive will have to be borne by it, till global response gets activated. Comparisons are being made with Hong Kong, but the major differences is that leadership, hierarchy in Hong Kong and police was manipulated by CCP, whereas  the leadership in Taiwan is strong and resolute refusing to give in to Chinese coercion. The need for amphibious assault due to terrain friction makes Chinese misadventure in Taiwan more difficult than Hong Kong.

Chinese amphibious capabilities to capture Taiwan are suspect, more so if US warships like the USS Ronald Reagan are around. China has enough missile arsenals to destroy Taiwan, but such a massive destruction of Han Chinese (95 percent of Taiwanese population is Han), who have relations, investments and inseparable linkages with their relatives in mainland and vice versa will not go well with domestic population of mainland. Over two million Taiwanese live in China, mostly in Coastal areas, and over 20 per cent have married there.

This will also destroy Chinese and Taiwanese economy, which does not suit Chinese leadership struggling to revive its economy marred by trade war, failing BRI and COVID effect. China is top destination for Taiwanese export accounting for approximately 40% of total exports, with Taiwan having  overall trade surplus of US$104.7 billion in 2021 with China.

A public opinion poll in Taiwan in 2020 indicated 73 percent people identified themselves as Taiwanese, who were against China, and 77 percent  supported democratic movement in Hongkong and this figure has increased in last two years. Getting Taiwanese under its wings will also bring a fresh democratic wave in China, which CCP may not be used to handle. Taiwanese people do not want to sacrifice their democratic freedom and prosperity, which is the main reason for success of President Tsai. The conflict if imposed by China will be deadly and Chinese, who want to win without fighting are not known for their appetite to accept body bags of Han Chinese, for a cause which doesn’t give them economic benefit but takes it away its dream of national rejuvenation, as indicated by General Qiao. 

Why Taiwan is a US-China Issue?

PRC may keep claiming Taiwan to be its domestic issue, but it has much greater external dimensions. Diplomatically US may claim to follow ‘One China Policy’ but it treats Taiwan no less than an ally. The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, effective from March 26, 2020 is an indication. The Taiwan Relation Act,1973, Taiwan Travel Act signed 2019, and National Defence Authorisation Act signed earlier this year to facilitate sale of state of the art weaponry and joint exercises justify the statement. US will always like to trade and strategically partner with democratic Taiwan outside Beijing’s influence, and not Taiwan under CCP.

In any potential invasion of Taiwan, the spill over of the battle space to Japan is obvious due to geographic proximity, an ally which US is obligated to protect. Chinese initial offensive can be on Taiwan, but US could join forces with its allies in the region to use their sea and air advantages to cut off Beijing’s maritime lifeline in and outside South China Sea. Chinese supply lines outside Nine dash line are still vulnerable to choking, and it will draw out PLA to get into war outside its comfort Zone. Taking Taiwan by force, therefore involves mobilisation of all its combat resources, expecting an escalation from limited war to an all-out war, as the operation amounts to crossing US redline of “No Change in Status Quo of Taiwan”. Economically Chinese heavy reliance on the US dollar is far from over, and such a war over Taiwan would be a massive economic blow to China, that would see capital flooding out, and companies moving of the country, much sooner than it thought.

Way Ahead

If Chinese aggressive posturing, air incursions and military drills announced for four days end as scheduled without escalation, may be that situation may still remain under control, as US and Taiwan have also done military drills in that region earlier. If it escalates into an attempt to unite Taiwan by force, it will certainly up the ante with US, prove China as irresponsible bully, may lead to loss of life of Han Chinese both ways, lead to economic destruction of its one of the largest investors and jeopardise China’s goal of national rejuvenation. Internationally, China may have miscalculated US resolve and Taiwan’s resistance and all may not go their way. If Chinese ambitions grow beyond global tolerance, it has bright chances to bring rest of the world against China. While the visit of Nancy Pelosi may have given a strong message to China, but the US resolve is still under test, because Taiwan can’t be expected to handle Chinese aggression alone, more so if it has been hyped by super power contestation. US therefore must consider starting similar military exercise in Malacca Strait with other navies to remind China of its vulnerable SLOC before it starts blocking Taiwanese shipping.

The aggressive posturing in Taiwan Strait, South and East China Sea will continue, even if the current crisis slows down. PRC’s aim is to pressurise President Tsai Not to declare independence, keep pressure on, hope DPP loses next election and work out favourable arrangements with opposition likely to be favourable to China. Neither China nor US want war, but none wants to give walkover as well, hence this strategic gaming and posturing is on and will continue.

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Why would a peaceful country join NATO?

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Image source: war.ukraine.ua

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a security alliance between Europe and North America.  It was established in the 1949 having goals of protecting democratic freedom but its sole purpose was to counter any future aggression from the Soviet Union and hence this organization was anti-Soviet accord that established the balance of power in Europe. Under the Article 5 of NATO it obliges all member states to protect each other in state of war, this allowed the NATO member states to share their military capabilities and pool their resources in time of attack or invasion. Besides having collective security goals and containing USSR, NATO served as an engine to democratization.  NATO clearly was a threat to the sovereignty of USSR and to counter Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact, Moscow had all the reasons to justify formation of this pact. After the Berlin wall fell and Soviet Union disintegrated, Germany was faced by a serious question of whether to join NATO or the Warsaw pact.  The US President made an offer to Russian President, suggesting that if Germany joined NATO, NATO would stop its expansion.  Moscow bought this offer and demolished the Warsaw pact hoping that the west would follow suit that NATO too would dissolve.  NATO continued its expansionist process and included ex-Soviet republics as well. The Russian President Putin on many instances asked NATO that against whom this expansion intended to. An organization initially targeted towards countering a country is now getting so close to them that there intensions can even be sniffed from the border, is causing a security dilemma.  The war in Ukraine is the living example that US did not do as promise, a stab in the back of Russia. This act is clearly a proactive one and number of US’s political analyst opposed this step.

Ukraine being a sovereign country and knowing its history with Russia still wants to join and the question rises, why? Well Ukraine has become a country just like Afghanistan or Vietnam where the two world powers can have their proxy wars. Former Ukrainian presidents either supported to join NATO or opposed it under the influence of these foreign powers. Joining NATO means taking side with the western power and this would seriously be taken as a treat by Russia, as NATO is an organization that talks about collective security with the help of its military alliance. Why Ukraine wants it? Was Ukraine threatened by the Russians of any invasion or were they forced by the western powers to join? What benefits Ukraine would have after joining NATO?

To answer the above questions one must first understand that situation of security dilemma exits between Ukraine and Russia and to assure its security Ukraine needed backup in the form of NATO. Moscow has adopted a policy toward Ukraine and Belarus throughout Putin’s term in power based on the presumption that each former Soviet country’s national identities are artificial and thus brittle. Vladimir Putin frequently exhibits what historians refer to as the “politics of eternity,” in order to restore the lost essence of the Soviet Empire. One of the reasons why Ukraine needed security assurance. This was only possible if a state stronger than Russia supported and formed alliance with Ukraine, hence Ukraine turned towards joining NATO.

Now that Russia has annexed Ukraine, it clearly depicts the Russian insecurity as well in context with the Western imperialist nature. The people of Ukrainian are still in state of shock as to why Ukraine, a peace loving country wants to join an organization that is more in to waging war rather than building cooperation and peace.  The Ukrainian President, Zelensky, recently posed for a Vogue magazine depicting in the background the war torn Ukraine, receiving a major backlash questioning whether all this is just a good background for a cover magazine.

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