“Taking Centre Stage in the World”

By

   Vice Adm. (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

            First published in the author’s column on the IPCS website on 28 Nov 2017.                                                                                                 

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, “Let’s Party like it’s 1793.” The Economist May2013, https://www.economist.com/.

When Chairman Xi declared at the opening of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world,” he may have drawn this deduction from two perceived shifts in the global strategic environment. Firstly, the sensed flagging of US interests in global pacts emblematized by the “America First” agenda that most resembled an impending abandonment of regional partnerships that did not recognise US pre-eminence; and secondly, apparent US distraction in providing decisive security leadership in the troubled parts of the world. Of course, the issue of whether any grouping of major nations wanted Xi’s leadership never entered the debate.

China in recent years has become a major funder of infrastructure in the developing world. Its arrival has challenged existing institutional lenders, particularly when Xi in 2013, announced a scheme to resurrect the medieval Silk Road through a vast network of roads, pipelines, ports and railways that connected China with Europe via Central Asia, West Asia and ports in South Asia and East Africa. China intends to provide proprietary financial support to the project. The innards of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by ‘over the line’ issues such as client-government superintendence and financing on a scale not seen before or, remarkably, with such indistinct terms. Essentially, the scheme’s purpose is strategic influence of global connectivity; while at the same time, deploying close to 30 per cent of China’s substantial dollar reserves (over $3 trillion) that has hitherto held low yielding American debt, on more strategically beneficial ventures.

And yet restoring the lost grandeur of the Silk Route has many other challenges that may not be overcome by Xi’s ‘fiat.’ Beginning with internal corruption, since the entire programme is to be funded largely by state owned banks. In the instance, as a wit put it, “then, how does a barber cut his own hair?” The matter of an opaque dispensation attempting to break from its political roots to gain a mandate of the people must add to planners’ discomfort. The questionable economics of committing billions of dollars into the world’s most impoverished and unstable regions hardly instils confidence in the programme. Already falling prices of primary products and unhinged host politics have undermined some of the 900 constituent projects. Compounding matters is the cost of freightage by rail, which is as much as four to five times that of cargo movement by sea. Besides, the current state of the enterprise is unidirectional as rakes return largely empty on the east-bound leg. Chinese ideology is hardly welcome in the region. The recent use of trade as a tool of punishment, specifically in the case of Philippines from where banana imports were cut, while rare earth exports to Japan were curbed, tariff barriers raised unilaterally, and the general economic retaliation on South Korea, does not in any way serve the ends of free trade-flow or economic inclusiveness.

Chinese historians do not tire of reminding the world of its recent past that staggered between the collapse of an empire to humiliating colonization, from bloody wars to the civil anarchy of Maoism and now in the success of ‘Authoritarian Capitalism,’ some even perceive a return of the Middle Kingdom. But even if the old world order were to make way, slipping into a mire of lost belief, there remains the problem of a potentially bizarre future where not nearly-quite-dead Capitalism is controlled by a totalitarian regime fervently dependent on magnifying growth, perpetuity of dispensation and a disruptive brand of nationalism for stability; all of which echo a past not quite from the Orient but from a more recent Europe of the first few decades of the twentieth century.

In response, for Xi to turn to an even more assertive military-led foreign policy, brings to the fore the probability of conflict; specifically, on the Korean Peninsula, where China’s role as agent provocateur is becoming more and more undeniable. If the generalised theory of war suggests causes of armed conflict as introduction of weapons of mass destruction, a revisionist agenda stimulated by significant change in the balance of power, and lastly, a contrarian and often disrupted structure of order; then these are all eminently resident in the region. Yet global remedies adapted to date have neither generated a consensual course of action nor has the status quo been emphasised. In the on-going brinkmanship polity on the Korean Peninsula, the antagonists have, predictably provided partisan military support and embraced a skewed one-sided stoppage of financial and economic flows that fuel the causes of conflict (being the main donor to North Korea, Chinese leadership sees no reason to check continuance.) Similarly, dialogue has focused on little else than a dual-stance posture: delivery of military threats and a litany of in-executable demands.

The littorals of the West Pacific have, in the meantime, rediscovered the Trans-Pacific Partnership sans the USA; while on the security front the Quadruple Entente (an initiative involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) is averred for revival. These undercurrents suggest not just a hesitancy to endorse a China-led order, but also a push back on belt-and-road craft as well as Chinese blue-water ambitions.

In truth, much would depend upon the will to order, the universal repugnance to leaving centre stage untenanted, or the unlikely event of China’s amenability to sharing the stage.

 

 

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“The World is Not Peaceful”

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Addressing senior Communist Party and government officials in Beijing, at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Premier Xi Jinping declared “We do not allow any individual, any organisation, any political party, at any time or by any means, to split any single piece of the Chinese territory. No one could expect us to swallow consequences that damage our sovereignty, security and developmental interests”. During the speech, Xi repeatedly emphasised that the “world was not peaceful and the military must forever stay unswervingly loyal to the Communist Party of China, as its absolute leadership over the armed forces is the PLA’s “unalterable soul and indispensable lifeline”. These comments came just two days after he addressed the PLA ground forces directly at Zhurihe in Inner Mongolia (was there symbolism attached since the geographic location was where Genghis Khan set off on his conquest of Eurasia in the year 1206 AD that cleaved political cohesion to the silk route). Here Xi announced “China must defeat all enemies that dare to offend”.

If now we were to establish who China’s enemies were, it would become amply clear who the target or targets are. No easy task this, as China has long been embroiled in a contest with Japan over the East China Sea island of Senkaku; with South Korea on rights over the submerged Socotra Rock; with Philippines on sovereignty over Spratly Island and Scarborough Shoal; Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei over the Spratly Islands; and Indonesia over control of Natuna Island. Beijing also threatens to use force to conquer Taiwan if peaceful enticements prove insufficient. And more importantly it has flouted the UNCLOS and conventions regarding establishing a new ADIZ in the East China Sea. China also demands title over nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. Its claim of possession over the waters within the so-called 9-Dash line (it was11-dash when relations with Vietnam were different) has brought it on a collision course with the USA and all the maritime stake holders of the region as the claim overlaps with those of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan. And not forgetting, China was engaged in a two month-long border standoff with Indian forces over the latter’s security relations with Bhutan and its commitment to blocking a road being constructed across the Doklam Plateau (claimed by Bhutan) which could potentially act as a spring board to sever the strategically critical ‘Chicken’s Neck’ (the Siliguri corridor); it’s elites cogitated, that it would be a ‘Just-War’ to expel India. However, on 28 August 2017, the two governments announced that the crisis had been defused and troops were disengaging.

From the Indian stand point, solidarity of the Indo-Bhutanese security pact had weathered the crunch while China’s deployment of man and material for construction of the road was balked (it can hardly be a coincidence that China is to host the BRICS summit on 03 September, a dissolution of the conclave would have meant loss of face to Xi). While Indeed, China’s nuclear and strategic promotion of North Korea provides the context for alarming tensions in the entire region, the recent US and Japan imposed sanctions on a dozen Chinese companies and individuals accused of helping North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme; is perhaps, the first aggregation of a mounting series of strictures. So in near ‘epic’ terms, the question remains, who “dare offend Xi?”

Scholars in their wisdom have found three reasons for India earning the wrath of Xi. The first is India’s strategic snub to fall in line with Xi’s grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) scheme (never mind that it passes through disputed territory of Northern Kashmir). Secondly, the impending 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China provides a critical context for Xi to stamp his authority by “constituting his strategic policies”, in the mould of Mao when in 1964 he thrust his ‘Red Book’ and later used it during the Cultural Revolution to ram home ideological uniformity and to weed out adversaries; to have nations insouciant to Xi’s grand designs would tantamount to abasement at the highest political level. Thirdly, since sovereignty whips up the maximum nationalist emotions, it may provide some understanding to both the recent Doklam confrontation and the situation in the South China Sea. The three put together, may seem to an absolutist, such as Xi; ablation of the indices of his power.

An important symbol of political standing, clout and legacy of leadership since 1949; from Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, is to have their political theories written into the party constitution as guiding dogmas. Mao had his ‘Red Book’, Deng his ‘24 characters’, Jiang his ‘developmental dictatorship’ and even the bland Hu emblematized ‘pursuit of economic growth at the cost of legal and political reforms.’ But will Xi achieve the distinction – putting him in the same league as Mao – if his thoughts (conceivably titled, “Security, Development and Territorial Sovereignty on China’s terms) are accepted as the supervisory ideology while still in power? This, at the 19th Congress would give him the legitimacy and mandate, in a presumptive way, of the people to the exclusion of the politburo.

“The world is not peaceful” says Xi. Somehow, Chinese actions, Janus faced policies, coercive manoeuvres and rhetoric of recent times have only served to confound the script.

A Pug, a Terrier, & the Doklam Stand Off

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published on the Peace and Conflict Studies website.

Doklam

Doklam Sector source intoday.com  Scale:0 ——– ——-50km

William Moorcroft, a British veterinary surgeon of the East India Company, set off in 1816 on an expedition to the Kailas region of Tibet to search for that breed of Central Asian horses that would revitalise the blood stock of the Company’s cavalry. His quest took him to a Tibetan official, where to his astonishment he was greeted not by his fabled strain of mounts but by two familiar breed of dogs. One a Pug and the other a Terrier, both alien to the land. So where had they come from? The answer, took a while to sink in: Tsar Alexander’s army had got here before the British.

A shadowy war was underway for control of the strategic passes, plateaus and wastelands of Tibet and Central Asia that led to India. However, Russian intent on conquest then, seemed inconceivable to the Raj. It was not till the middle of the 19th Century when the Khanates along the route fell that the curtains lifted on the ‘Great Game’. As the frontiers of the two empires loomed, it exposed the ill surveyed and poorly guarded borders of Northern India. It took the British Empire four decades after Moorcroft’s ‘close encounter’ to fully appreciate the significance of the Pug and the Terrier.

The Great Game ended after two revolutions and another half century. Yet its legacy of where the Northern frontiers of India lay remained confused, as the British used little else than artful cartography and more of imperial disdain to redraw empire. The modern Indian state has yet to reconcile this dangerous historical equivocation. Early political leadership in India had a cavalier and sometimes Arcadian perspective of history. The absence of unprejudiced attempts at defining geography has left indistinct borderlands to this day that suppurate with disturbing regularity. The region of the Doklam plateau in the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan is one such region.

Doklam is situated roughly 15 kilometres east of the Nathu La pass that separates India and China. On the western edge of the Doklam plateau is Doka La, which connects Sikkim with either Tibet (Chinese Government Claim) or links Sikkim to western Bhutan. In June 2017, China attempted to extend a road southward across Yadong county, the wedge at the mouth of the Chumbi valley, leading to the thin edge. So, on 18 June, Indian troops crossed into the territory to prevent construction of the road. China has criticised India for entering its “territory.” With Bhutan the dispute involves, a matter of 764 sq. km of territory on the Doklam Plateau. The ‘Wedge’ has enormous strategic significance for China, Bhutan as well as India. Recall in 1962, the real anxiety was that the thrust of China’s Army of Tibet would develop on a North-South axis from the Chumbi Valley to cut off the strategically vital Siliguri corridor (Chicken’s Neck). In 1965, again, China in support of Pakistan, threatened to open this front. If China were to ever get hold of this territory, the Northeast would remain in a state of unremitting peril.

The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007, successor to the 1949 Treaty of ‘Perpetual Peace and Friendship’, pledges close “cooperation on issues relating to national interests and security.” It mirrors Bhutanese trepidation of a Tibet encore.  Central to the current stand-off is the building of logistical infrastructure across the disputed plateau that would provide a spring board to drive across the Chicken’s neck. India along with Bhutan has stepped into the disputed area to block advancement of the road. So what has urged Beijing to incite this incident? There are three impulsions which have a bearing on the impasse: Firstly, India’s maritime manoeuvres (‘Malabar’) in the Northern Indian Ocean with the US and Japan underscores resolve to achieve cooperative security and control against an aggressive and revisionist China; India’s strategic disinclination to come on board on the OBOR for reasons of it being “long on politics and spare on economics” has not gone down well with China. Besides the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is offensive as it passes through the disputed POK; and lastly, the Indo-Bhutan security Compact is abhorrent to China and needed to be put to test.

And what of an improbable escalation to a hot conflict? Clearly the Indian military is prepared. It is also clear that conflict will be waged on terms advantageous to India. In addition to operational manoeuvres undertaken to check China’s land forces; the superior deployable Indian Air force will endeavour to assure a favourable situation in the skies to progress operations on the ground while the Indian Navy will strive to deny the northern Indian Ocean to PLAN exertions as it exercises control over shipping in the busiest lanes of the world located in Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal; targeting hulls bound for China. Obviously these missions are neither small in scope nor will they come without losses; an eventuality that both nations must be sensitive to will be to the detriment of their larger development goals.

And all this ado for the indifference to misplaced Pugs and Terriers.