Tag Archives | East Asia

MH370 and three worrying “ifs”

Implications for India’s diplomacy, national security and civil aviation policy.: my The Asian Balance column at Business Standard.

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH470 was lost over South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of assistance. Given that the Malaysian authorities knew — for Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the Andaman Sea — that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, we wish they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister said that “(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners – including neighbouring countries…(in the investigation)”, which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either. Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand—which implies overflight or landing on Indian territory — Kuala Lumpur’s lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India’s Look East policy in general and the Indian navy’s sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leaves countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur’s delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging & capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing.

From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India’s direction is only 50% (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean). The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India’s borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircrafts in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the Andaman Sea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three “ifs” concerns our military setup in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s only tri-service theatre command, it is “charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman & Nicobar territories, its air space and waters.” If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars. That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told the Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focussed on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and might not be operate round-the-clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can’t spot a lumbering elephant the chances are that you can’t spot quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That’s not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don’t miss the next bird.

The second “if” involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane’s transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn’t have detected it — but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable. However, if (and note that this is a bigger “if”) it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far fetched “if”. What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn’t diminish the risk to national security. Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

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The cat’s paw

Strategic proxies have disproportionate negotiating power

This month’s Asian Balance argues that China is indeed being ‘bullied’ by the Philippines. Such a statement is likely to cause many people to jump because of the value judgement placed on the term ‘bully’ as well as the David and Goliath-like setting. Shorn of those value judgements and biases, though, this statement holds up. As the column notes, the Philippines has more to gain and less to lose by behaving in a provocative manner than China.

One reason for this is Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington. This affords it with the security that the United States will have to intervene in some form if the Philippines is attacked by China. Washington has let it be known that it is unlikely to intervene in a territorial dispute. This allows China to act against the Philippines in the disputed territory—if Beijing takes military action beyond the disputed islands, and onto sovereign Philippines territory, then it raises the risk of US intervention. The exact red line might be fuzzy, but both Beijing and Manila know that it exists. The game then is to exploit the space before the red line is crossed.

The United States might well be using the Philippines as a proxy to indirectly contain China, its strategic adversary. However, this is not without its own strategic costs—failure to manage the proxy can drag the United States into a conflict it does not want to get into. Manila knows this and can exploit it, for instance, by demanding that the United States sell it arms so that it can defend itself better.

China is at the receiving end in this case, but is quite an accomplished player in the strategic proxy game. North Korea ties down the United States, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Pakistan checks India and the United States in the subcontinent. All in the game.

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Is China being bullied by the Philippines?

The disproportionate negotiating power of strategic proxies

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

The small-country bullies
China’s aggressive posturing over maritime boundaries has caused East Asian countries to look at other powers for support

It’s those Chinese fishing vessels again. Last month they ventured into a shoal in the South China Sea, presumably hunting for giant clams, when they were apprehended by the Philippines’ naval patrols. If the Philippines claims the Scarborough shoal – a few hectares worth of low-lying rocks 200 kilometres from its shores – China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. In what has become a familiar pattern over the last few years, the Chinese fishing vessels triggered off a confrontation that quickly escalated into a maritime and diplomatic stand-off. Chinese tourists left the Philippines, and Filipino bananas face an uncertain prospect now in clearing China’s food safety tests.

The two countries are now trying to back off at this time, but not before the “w” word surfaced in the popular discourse.
War? Over some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Between China (GDP $7.3 trillion, defence budget $106.4 billion) and the Philippines (GDP $213 billion, defence budget $2.3 billion)? Who would want it?

Not China. While it certainly wants to keep its territorial claims alive by letting intrepid fishing vessels do to South China Sea islands what dogs do to lamp posts, it knows that an outright military conflict will be counterproductive to its longer-term interests.

Provocative fishing vessels and Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic posturing over maritime boundaries have already caused East Asian countries to look at the United States, India and other powers for support. In case China finds itself in a war with the Philippines, opposition to Beijing will consolidate, and the US will make strategic inroads into the region, making it harder for China to achieve its goal of dominating the Western Pacific.

The US too does not want a war. It has a military alliance with the Philippines, and Manila could call upon US support if it is attacked. Washington is understandably reluctant to let itself be dragged into a war against a great power by a small ally over a tiny issue. The Obama administration has signalled that territorial disputes are outside the scope of the defence pact. Even so, if it is seen as shirking from supporting its ally, the value of Washington’s strategic promissory notes in East Asia will sharply depreciate. It cannot, however, support its ally without provoking Beijing. A war would cause the US to choose between losing its reputation and getting into an unwanted confrontation with China.

Most East Asian countries do not want war either. They have spent the last decade attempting to engineer “regional security architectures” – essentially multilateral forums that discuss security issues – that hope to solve tricky geopolitical disputes without being bullied and without having to fight. Yet for all its achievements, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has little to show in terms of ability to manage armed conflict, even between its member states. Thailand, for instance, has stonewalled the deployment of Indonesian military observers over its border dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Nor has Asean been very vocal in insisting that China comply with the code of conduct in the South China Sea they agreed to in 2002. Its member states are unlikely to want their solidarity to be put to the kind of test that a China-Philippines naval conflict would entail.

What about the Philippines itself? For Manila, maritime boundaries in the South China Sea assume an economic significance that goes beyond nationalistic sentiment over territory. The seabed is supposed to have rich reserves of oil and natural gas, although estimates vary. The technology to exploit natural gas fields in the South China Sea is maturing. China National Offshore Oil Corporation already has semi-submersible deep sea drilling platforms. Manila has its eyes on healthy revenue streams from energy exports which can make a substantial difference to its fiscal position and overall economic health.

This, coupled with the security guarantee the Philippines enjoys by virtue of its alliance with the US, has caused it to stand firm and confront China. So much so that Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing’s top foreign policy hands, accused the Philippines, “a smaller country”, of bullying China. He has a point. As China’s leaders ought to know all too well, small countries that are backed by great powers have disproportionate negotiating power, and they “bully” both their adversaries and their backers. The Philippines might calculate that it has relatively less to lose by letting tensions escalate.

That’s the main risk — when pesky fishing boats, Chinese law enforcement vessels and Philippines naval ships are facing off each other, an accidental trigger can cause an unintentional escalation. Given the turbulence in China’s civil-military relations ahead of this autumn’s leadership transition, and the numerous Chinese state agencies engaged in the South China Sea, the risk of escalation is higher on its side. The onus, therefore, is on Beijing to keep a lid on the tensions.

Unrelated to the stand-off, a contingent of four warships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command is on a routine long-range overseas deployment to the South China Sea, and ports in China and the Philippines are among those it will call on. It does come at an interesting time, given its mission of what the Navy terms “generating goodwill among the neighbouring countries”.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved.

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The price of minding Mr Hu’s delicate sensibilities

It is not in New Delhi’s interests to be seen as a craven appeaser of China

There are a number of reasons why states come together and form international groupings. These include common interests, common causes, common weaknesses, common fears, gawking, lurking and sabotaging. One of the more inexplicable reasons they form groupings is because some research at some investment bank wrote a report lumping them together based on their growth rates and sizes of their economy. That’s why when outrage suppresses yawn when BRICS summits are held.

If the Indian foreign service is understaffed and overstretched, it also is guilty of enthusiastically expending resources in one too many pointless clubs, from the Commonwealth to the Non-aligned Movement and now to BRICS. The opportunity cost of getting wrapped up in pointless pageantry is lower attention to more important forums like the G-20 and the East Asia Summit. Like in many other areas, the UPA government’s sense of priorities is highly questionable.

Worse, because China’s highly Tibet-sensitive president was to attend the summit, the Indian government found it necessary to round up not only Tibetan protestors, but anyone else who faintly resembled them. Calling it our shameful kow-tow, Mihir Sharma writes of “Tibetans being rounded up, made to squat in the sun; the ever-sensitive Delhi Police indulging in the worst sort of racial profiling, demanding that people who look even vaguely Tibetan prove their credentials or be locked up.”

Having met some of the top Indian officials dealing with China policy, I can say with some confidence that they are not the appeasing sort. So why did Delhi Police (which takes orders from the Union home ministry) behave in such a demeaning manner?

One explanation that you might hear is that since New Delhi is playing hardball where its core interests are concerned there is no point in gratuitously embarrassing China’s leader in the eyes of his peers. This being a crucial year for the Chinese leadership—where power is supposed to change hands at the Party Congress amid factional strife, economic uncertainties and internal instability—why make President Hu Jintao lose face? There’s some merit in this argument. You don’t need to make a public show of your intentions. Making your guest comfortable is as good a principle in diplomacy as in daily life (although some Leftists didn’t believe this ought to extend to a US president).

Nor does preventing pro-Tibet protests prejudice India’s current or future negotiating position on the Tibetan issue. After all, “Free Tibet” protests can take place elsewhere in the country and on any other day of the calendar.

It’s not uplifting, it’s not fragrant, but there is merit in this logic. However, it still misses a larger point. The world—and especially the countries of East Asia—are watching. What they saw is a potential counter to Chinese hegemony bend over backwards (a reverse kow-tow?) to please China’s leader. Although they have seen some measures by New Delhi that persuades them of India’s intentions to contribute to the Asian balance of power, such signals risk confusing them. Small and medium-powers in India’s extended eastern neighbourhood will begin to have doubts about New Delhi’s ability to stand up to Chinese assertiveness. This will make it much more difficult for India to pursue its own interests in East Asia.

Finally, the perception that New Delhi ‘appeased’ Beijing yet again will exacerbate the hysteria in the media and public discourse on matters concerning China. Ironically, the UPA government has ended up embarrassing itself in front of its people in order to avoid embarrassing Mr Hu in front of his. Senior Indian officials have complained that the way the Indian media report issues pertaining to India-China relations complicates matters. The way the Indian established handled Mr Hu’s visit doesn’t help matters either. Feeding a narrative of a weak India unable to show spine to China on core democratic values is unlikely to help New Delhi make tough decisions of give-and-take if the opportunity presents itself. After all, we are all just prisoners here, of our own narratives.

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What does Taiwan’s election result mean for India?

Ma’s victory and India’s dilemma

Yesterday’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

Taiwan’s presidential elections, since they first started in 1996, have in large part been referendums on the “One China” policy. Voters have been offered two deviations from the delicious ambiguity of the status quo: either a path towards eventual re-unification with mainland China or a dangerous path towards independence. Taiwan’s grand old party, the Kuomintang (KMT), espouses the former, while the Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours the latter.

The stakes, obviously, are high for Beijing — whose leaders have tried, unsuccessfully, bullying, coercion and suasion to influence the Taiwanese voter. But the stakes are also high for the Indo-Pacific region because Taiwan is critical to the stability of US-China relations, especially at a time when they both are attempting to move away from the confrontation of the past two years.

Neither China nor the United States wants the Taiwanese voter to rock the boat. Both had let it be known that they would prefer the incumbent president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, to win. In the event, on Saturday, the Taiwanese people agreed. But not before pre-election opinion polls showed that the election would go down to the wire, prompting thousands of expatriate Taiwanese from places like Silicon Valley to crowd into flights back to the island to cast their ballot.

That Ma found himself neck-to-neck with Tsai Ing-yen, his DPP challenger, is interesting. Four years ago, he was voted in after people felt that the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was taking Taiwan into dangerous waters with his pro-independence line. Ma delivered on his campaign promise of closer ties with the mainland, sealing a major trade deal with China in 2010, boosting trade, travel, communications and investments.

China-Taiwan trade is currently around $160 billion. Taiwanese investors pumped in close to $40 billion in the four years of Ma’s first term. Chinese investors reciprocated, albeit only to the tune of $170 million. Increasing the number of direct flights to almost 100 a day brought in 2 million Chinese tourists and $3 billion in receipts. There has been a parallel improvement in official relations between Beijing and Taipei, as much in form as in substance.

Why then did Ma face a tough election? One answer is what we would call an anti-incumbency effect. As he admitted last month, there were some economic goals his government failed to achieve, especially those relating to employment and income growth. The other answer, one that goes beyond economic angst and back to the China-Taiwan question, might be a preference by voters to drag deviations from the status quo to the middle. As Russell Hsiao, a political analyst, wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s “China Brief” last month, a majority of Taiwanese people want to perpetuate the status quo and will punish politicians who stray too far from it. This might also explain both the closeness of the contest and the verdict itself.

Over in Beijing, Ma’s victory is seen as vindication and a political triumph for President Hu Jintao. In the internal dynamics of the Communist Party of China, it is likely to empower individuals and factions close to Hu, influencing the pecking order of the new administration that will take over after this year’s party congress. Also, as Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based commentator, points out, “if the KMT continues to rule, one can assume that tensions will be lowered further and the [People’s Liberation Army] will have no reason to ask for a higher budget.” To the extent that the issue of Taiwan’s status becomes less of a thorn in Beijing’s side, the political salience of the hawkish factions will, on the margin, diminish. This in turn can help reduce tensions with the United States.

In Washington, some commentators have already begun asking whether it makes sense to continue to allow Taiwan to poison relations between the United States and China. While it is unlikely that such a policy reversal is in the offing, it is already clear that Washington would prefer a Taiwan that doesn’t raise the temperature in East Asia. Washington’s strategic calculus, like that of the other major powers in Indo-Pacific, is about shaping a favourable balance of power, not triggering a military confrontation.

India faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the geopolitical stability suggested by a KMT government means greater economic opportunities for India to engage Taiwan. Compared to Japan, South Korea and Singapore, our bilateral trade and investment with Taiwan is negligible. The country accounts for one per cent of India’s foreign trade. At 0.03 per cent of the total foreign direct investment in India, Taiwan ranks below countries like Chile and Turkey. Bilateral trade agreements can help, but only if domestic reforms make India relatively more attractive as an investment destination.

On the other hand, a Beijing less preoccupied with issues in its backyard will find it easier to project power elsewhere, including against India.

Geoeconomic opportunities are, thus, stacked against geopolitical risks. So unless New Delhi uses the space created by Saturday’s elections to rapidly scale up economic ties, India will have little upside from Ma’s success.
Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved. [Business Standard]

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The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China

China’s external, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities are worsening

Here’s today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

This may come as a surprise to many, but China today is at its most vulnerable since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. That’s not all; it is unlikely that the country will shake off its vulnerabilities – geopolitical, economic and internal security – over the next three to five years.

The developments in East Asia in the past few weeks, focused around the East Asia Summit at Bali, have put China on the defensive. Not only is the United States reinvesting its military assets into the Indo-Pacific region, but almost all of China’s neighbours have moved to construct bulwarks against China. Even Myanmar is showing signs of wanting out of China’s orbit, and is opening up to India, the United States and Vietnam. If countries of the region are ganging up against China, it is largely Beijing’s fault. Picking a fight with each one of your neighbours at the same time is not the smartest of moves. Yet, that’s what China has done over the past couple of years.

What happened in Beijing’s foreign policy kitchen is anyone’s guess but China no longer enjoys a favourable external environment that it used to for the last two decades.

Let’s come to economics. Not only does China hold more than a trillion dollars of US debt, it is likely to have to increase its dollar holdings given the sovereign debt crises in the euro zone. So a lot of China’s money is, and will be for some time, at the mercy of its biggest strategic rival. Continue Reading →

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The Asian Balance: Myanmar’s Narasimha Rao moment?

A pleasant surprise from the east

This is the unedited draft of today’s column in the Business Standard:

In a matter of months, Myanmar’s infamous junta diluted itself out of power, a new ‘elected’ government took office, duly freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, lifted some curbs on the local media, unblocked YouTube, declared that censorship ought to go, announced the intention to introduce economic reforms and — hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen — bowed to public pressure and suspended construction on a huge hydro-electric dam that Chinese companies were building on the Irrawaddy river.

So far, so remarkable and so quiet have these developments been that even seasoned observers are in a state of surprise. It seems impossible that a country which appeared so utterly hopeless even twelve months ago — with a closed-minded, curmudgeonly junta presiding over the destruction of generations of human capital — has turned around even to this extent. Then again, this is 2011, the year of geopolitical surprises, where the unexpected is a daily occurrence. Myanmar is unique because the changes happened without ceremony, without round-the-clock television coverage, without foreign fighter aircraft flying sorties over the capital, even without that symbol of early twenty-first century revolution — the twitter hashtag. And so far, at least, it has been good news.

The country may be at its own Narasimha Rao moment. President Thein Sein, who was in India last week, was a top-rung general in the previous military regime and had served as prime minister. Like Rao, he is an unlikely figure to open his country to the world. And like Rao, he might well be the most appropriate. It is way too early to declare that Myanmar has climbed out of the pit its generals dug for it. The new government’s moves are tentative, but they are in the right direction. What happens next depends as much on how the world responds to Thein Sein’s overtures as on his ability to carry his country’s armed forces along.

Because some of Thein Sein’s key decisions preceded or coincided with his trip to New Delhi, some have portrayed them as a vindication of New Delhi’s approach of engaging the erstwhile junta despite its odious human rights record. Such an argument, however, must be tempered with the fact that the Myanmarese foreign minister visited Washington, which had shunned and sanctioned the junta, two weeks prior to Thein Sein’s arrival in India.

Others have cast the developments within Myanmar in the context of a grand contest between India and China, with reformist-democratic forces gravitating towards New Delhi just as conservative-authoritarians are aligned to Beijing. This is misleading.

Take for instance the halting of construction of the Myitsone dam that angered the Chinese government. Given the enormity of public opposition to the dam which mainly benefits China while causing environmental damage in Myanmar, the Thein Sein government confronted a choice between antagonising its own people and angering China. That it chose the latter is a credible signal of its approach to governance. That said, the geopolitical consequences of rubbing a powerful neighbour on the wrong side had to be managed, which explain the overtures to India and the United States. This does not mean that Myanmar will now start favouring India over China in commercial dealings. Rather, it will seek greater policy autonomy for itself by balancing its relationships with regional and world powers. This is still a positive for India, but only to the extent that the playing field will be more level that it was earlier.

So it is up to the Indian government and Indian industry to capitalise on the opening promised by the Thein Sein government. China’s success in South East Asia over the past decade has been due to a combination of money and speed. India’s announcement of a $500 million line-of-credit for development projects in Myanmar can make a meaningful different, but the our government is unlikely — for good reason — to be able to match its Chinese counterpart in the spreading of largesse. We should not get into a spending race. But we should not make excuses for the glacial pace at which India’s developmental projects move forward.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which connects India’s eastern seaboard to its north-eastern states through Myanmar, is of strategic importance. You should be properly horrified to hear that it is proceeding “slowly”. Also, last week, when one of Thein Sein’s cabinet colleagues broached the idea of re-opening the World War II-era Stillwell Road (which connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar) our minister of development of the north-eastern region’s reply was: “We have told them that Government of India would consider the proposal after it is formally submitted.” In triplicate, he might have added.

We cannot say for sure that the Thein Sein government will sustain its current course. It may only be aiming at gaining greater international legitimacy and foreign investment while only marginally transforming the nature of the regime. In such circumstances, a tit-for-tat strategy — rewarding desirable movement and punishing backsliding — is called for. New Delhi should work in cooperation with the United States, Japan and key South East Asian countries to put Myanmar on an irreversible course towards freedom, democracy and development.

Copyright © 2011. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

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China’s moment of vulnerability

China is at its most vulnerable moment since the Tiananmen Square upheaval of 1989.

At a recent panel discussion at the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, I argued that it is important to include the dimension of China’s vulnerabilities in the way we see the India-China dynamic. The following is a summary of my remarks:

First, it has managed to antagonise almost all major nations–Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and India—in its region, causing them to explore ways to counter-balance it. This has raised the demand for a US presence and strategic engagement in East Asia. The upcoming East Asia Summit will essentially be a framework that will attempt to bind China’s rise in the silken bonds of international norms. [See the East Asian kabuki]

Second, it is locked into geo-economic interdependence with the United States in a situation akin to two people with a gun to each others’ heads. China cannot escape the consequences of a US default or devaluation. [See my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran's pieces on China's policy tangle, quest for balance and US default.]

Third, China’s internal stability has been rocked by multiple vectors. The three big ethnic minorities are in various stages of unrest: the Mongolians have joined Tibetans and Uyghurs in mass protests. Rising productivity is exerting upward pressure on wages that the Communist Party is being forced to keep a lid on. Some of the labour grievances have erupted into agitations. Farmers protesting against expropriation and eviction have constituted another vector of instability. While many of these incidents might not make it to televisions, newspapers and even websites due to information control, Beijing still has to deal with them.

Fourth, there is certainly a serious factional war raging within the cloisters of the Chinese Communist Party. The recent drama around the health and whereabouts of Jiang Zemin is the latest in a series of events that suggest China’s policies are outcomes of factional contention. For all its attempts to show otherwise, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not a monolithic entity. The Shanghai faction, the Youth Communist League Faction and the ‘Princeling’ faction have been identified. Even within the PLA, geographical regional loyalties and the changing balance of power between the PLA and the PLA Navy (PLAN) might be shaping China’s behaviour, not least in the East Asian maritime domain.

What should we make of it?

India should attempt to become a swing power. It should aim to achieve better relations with China and the United States than they enjoy with each other. At the same time, it must have the credible capacity to inflict pain and give pleasure to either of the two. This requires an unprecedented level of foreign policy dexterity.

While there is some empirical evidence that China tends to be more amenable to settling boundary disputes when it is internally weak, India should not be (and should not appear to be) in any haste to rush to a settlement. China is and perceives itself to be much more powerful than India at this time, and is likely to insist that disputes are settled only on its own terms. Instead of over-emphasising the Himalayan frontier, India should engage more deeply in East Asia, and contribute to a stable balance of power there [See the Asian balance and on the East Asian dance floor]. This is the primary means for India to acquire strategic leverage vis-a-vis China, for New Delhi is mostly on a weaker wicket on other issues.

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East Asia, yes. Iran, err.

US State Department’s view on India’s regional role

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of an online Q&A with Robert Blake, US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia.

Nitin Pai: You have been one of the few U.S. officials to state that India is part of East Asia. How do you see the partnership between India and the United States shaping up in terms of the balance of power in East Asia? Specifically the South China Sea.

Robert Blake: Thank you for that question. As I said earlier, I expect that how we can expand cooperation and information sharing on activities in Asia will be a real focus of the Strategic Dialogue between the Secretary and External Affairs Minister Krishna. Already we’ve announced that we’re going to have a trilateral dialogue between the United States and India and Japan. And that we look very much forward to India’s increased participation in East Asian institutions such as the East Asia Summit. So I think there’s a tremendous scope for greater collaboration in this area. And again, this will be very much an important focus of the dialogue next week and the week after.

NP: Do you see the India-U.S. strategic relationship as providing a basis for India to attempt reapproachment between U.S. and Iran? After all, if the U.S. and Iran get over their vexed relationship the entire geo-politics of the region would be transformed.

RB: I think the U.S.-Iran relationship is going to be decided on the basis of some of the important efforts that are already underway on the Iranian nuclear program. I don’t expect that India will have a huge role to play in that, although we do value our dialogue with India on Iran. Let me just leave it at that. [State Department]

The entire transcript is here. See reports by Indrani Bagchi, Narayan Lakshman, Indira Kannan, S Rajagopalan and ANI.

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The Asian Balance: General Liu can shut his eyelids now

Why does China need an aircraft carrier?

This is the unedited draft of my column in the Business Standard today.

 

China’s new aircraft carrier should surprise only those who were not looking—it has been China’s largest open secret for several years now. It has been apparent, literally,—thanks to Google Earth—, that the partially-completed Soviet-era vessel that China’s Chong Lot Travel Agency purchased for $20m in the late-1990s, complete with designs, was not really going to be used as a floating casino and amusement park. There have been other signs, including facilities and training programmes for naval personnel and aviators, that suggested China intended to operate aircraft carriers. As early as 1987, General Liu Huaqing, the recently deceased father of the modern PLA Navy, said that “Without an aircraft carrier, I will die with my eyelids open; the Chinese Navy needs to build an aircraft carrier.”

So both stated intentions and signs on the ground indicated that an aircraft carrier was on the cards. The only question was why, for the PLA Navy’s strategy over the last two decades has been to counter the United States’ formidable surface fleet through the development of its own submarine force. This strategy—of using submarines to neutralise the power of aircraft carriers and warships—was pioneered by the Soviet Union’s Admiral Sergey Gorshkov. In a remarkable demonstration of irony or its deficiency, the Soviets named one of their aircraft carriers after him, the same that India since purchased and is awaiting delivery of.

If aircraft carriers are a platform for a country to project hard power far beyond its shores, submarines are an effective way deny to them space. China had around 65 operational submarines last year. In 2007, one of them slipped past an array of ships and aircraft into an area in the Pacific Ocean where the US Navy’s aircraft carrier strike group was conducting training exercises. That incident was a stark reminder of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers to the Gorshkov strategy. It was also a signal of the changed maritime balance in the Western Pacific ocean.

The utility of aircraft carriers as a device to project power on the littoral is also undermined by anti-ship missiles. Chinese-made anti-ship missiles or their variants are deployed, among others, by North Korea, Myanmar, Iran, Bangladesh and possibly Pakistan. To the extent that their range, capability and proliferation grows, aircraft carriers become less useful in their traditional roles of power projection.

In other words, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier is likely to diminish over time, even if the costs stay the same. An aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and causes a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed.

After doing so much to neutralise the strategic utility of aircraft carriers why does China want to deploy them? Of course, there is prestige. Another reason is to do with the balance of power within the Chinese Community Party and the People’s Liberation Army, where pro-PLA Navy factions might have strengthened in recent years. That said, it is difficult to conclude if the navy’s growing political clout is the cause or the effect of the geopolitical churn in East Asia. Beyond these explanations there are three broad reasons why China might want to use aircraft carriers for.

The first is Taiwan. The very name proposed for the new carrier, Shi Lang, suggests Taiwan as its intended target. Shi Lang, a Manchu Qing dynasty general, conquered and annexed Taiwan into the Chinese empire in 1683, defeating the Qing dynasty elite who had fled to that island. Lan Ning-Li, a retired Taiwanese admiral notes that “the carrier would be in a position to move in areas surrounding southern and eastern Taiwan…(making it) vulnerable to enemy attacks at sea from both front and rear.” With nuclear weapons and submarines deterring the United States, an aircraft carrier will add to China’s military capabilities in a possible invasion of Taiwan. The PLA’s statement that “even after China owns an aircraft carrier, it is impossible for China to send the carrier into the territories of other countries” does not rule out use against Taiwan, which according to Beijing is part of China, thanks to the original Shi Lang.

Second, an aircraft carrier can be used as a vehicle for China to enforce its territorial claims over the Yellow, East and South China seas. If so, Shi Lang will be replacing fishing trawlers that have engaged in decidedly unfishermanly activities such as carrying surveillance equipment, ramming Japanese patrol boats, entangling with cables connected to Vietnamese exploration vessels and squatting over unpopulated islands. These presumably non-state actors currently perform the function of tripwires, creating incidents that trigger Beijing to assert its maritime claims. Introducing aircraft carriers into this game is dangerous, but the threat to do so could deter the US Navy from entering the fray in support of its allies.

Finally, China’s interests are global. It is likely to want to set up expeditionary forces to operate in distant theatres to pursue those interests. This is normal. However, like “peaceful rise”, a “defensive aircraft carrier” is a layer of sugar coating applied to make the indigestible just a little more palatable.
 

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