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Asia’s Shifting Alliances in the Time of Trump

Asia/Pacific’s Shifting Alliances

Dispatches From The Edge

 

Aug. 28, 2018

 

“Boxing the compass” is an old nautical term for locating the points on a magnetic compass in order to set a course. With the erratic winds blowing out of Washington these days, countries all over Asia and the Middle East are boxing the compass and re-evluating traditional foes and old alliances.

 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the past half-century, and both have nuclear weapons on a hair trigger. But the two countries are now part of a security and trade organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), along with China, Russia and most of the countries of Central Asia. Following the recent elections in Pakistan, Islamabad’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has called for an “uninterrupted continued dialogue” with New Delhi to resolve conflicts and establish “peace and stability” in Afghanistan.

 

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is a critic of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and particularly opposed to the use of U.S. drones to kill insurgents in Pakistan.

 

Russia has reached out to the Taliban, which has accepted an invitation for peace talks in Moscow on Sept. 4 to end the 17-year old war. Three decades ago the Taliban were shooting down Russian helicopters with American-made Stinger missiles.

 

Turkey and Russia have agreed to increase trade and to seek a political solution to end the war in Syria. Turkey also pledged to ignore Washington’s sanctions on Russia and Iran. Less than three years ago, Turkish warplanes downed a Russian bomber, Ankara was denouncing Iran, and Turkey was arming and supporting Islamic extremists trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al Assad.

 

After years of tension in the South China Sea between China and a host of Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, on Aug. 2 Beijing announced a “breakthrough” in talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). After years of bluster— including ship-to-ship face-offs—China and ASEAN held joint computer naval games Aug. 2-3. China has also proposed cooperative oil and gas exploration with SEATO members.

 

Starting with the administration of George W. Bush, the U.S. has tried to lure India into an alliance with Japan and Australia—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “quad”—to challenge China in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. The Americans turned a blind eye to India’s violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and dropped the ban on selling arms to New Delhi. The Pentagon even re-named its Pacific Command, “Indo-Pacific Command” to reflect India’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. is currently training Indian fighter pilots, and this summer held joint naval maneuvers with Japan and the U.S.—Malabar 18— in the strategic Malacca Straits .

 

But following an April Wuhan Summit meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, New Delhi’s enthusiasm for the Quad appears to have cooled. New Delhi vetoed Australia joining the Malabar war games.

 

At June’s Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore, Modi said “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” and pointedly avoided any criticism of China’s behavior in the South China Sea. Given that Indian and Chinese troops have engaged in shoving matches and fistfights with one another in the Doklam border region, Modi’s silence on the Chinese military was surprising.

 

China and India have recently established a military “hot line,” and Beijing has cut tariffs on Indian products.

 

During the SCO meetings, Modi and Xi met and discussed cooperation on bringing an end to the war in Afghanistan. India, Pakistan and Russia fear that extremism in Afghanistan will spill over their borders, and the three have joined in an effort to shore up the Taliban as a bulwark against the growth of the Islamic State.

 

There is also a push to build the long-delayed Iran-Pakistan natural gas pipeline that will eventually terminate in energy-starved India.

 

India signed the SCO’s “Qingdao Declaration,” which warned that “economic globalization is confronted with the expansion of unilateral protectionist policies,” a statement aimed directly at the Trump administration.

 

The Modi government also made it clear that New Delhi will not join U.S. sanctions against Iran and will continue to buy gas and oil from Teheran. India’s Defense Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman also said that India would ignore U.S. threats to sanction any country doing business with Russia’s arms industry.

 

Even such a staunch ally as Australia is having second thoughts on who it wants to align itself with in the Western Pacific. Australia currently hosts U.S. Marines and the huge U.S. intelligence gathering operation at Pine Gap. But China is Canberra’s largest trading partner, and Chinese students and tourists are an important source of income for Australia.

 

Canberra is currently consumed with arguments over China’s influence on Australia’s politics, and there is a division in the foreign policy establishment over how closely aligned the Australians should be with Washington, given the uncertain policies of the Trump administration. Some—like defense strategist Hugh White—argue that “Not only is America failing to remain the dominant power, it is failing to retain any substantial strategic role at all.”

 

White’s analysis is an overstatement. The U.S. is the most powerful military force in the region, and the Pacific basin is still Washington’s number one trade partner. In the balance of forces, Canberra doesn’t count for much. But the debate is an interesting one and a reflection that the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot” to ring China with U.S. allies has not exactly been a slam-dunk.

 

Of course, one can make too much of these re-alignments.

 

There are still tensions between China and India over their borders and competition for the Indian Ocean. Many Indians see the latter as “Mare Nostrum” [“Our Sea”], and New Delhi is acquiring submarines and surface crafts to control it.

 

However, since some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies transit the Indian Ocean, China is busy building up ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti to guard those routes.

 

India has recently tested a long-range ICBM—the Agni V—that has the capacity to strike China. The Indians claim the missile has a range of 3000 miles, but the Chinese say it can strike targets 5000 miles away, thus threatening most of China’s population centers. Since Pakistan is already within range of India’s medium range missiles, the Agni V could only have been developed to target China.

 

India is also one of the few countries in the region not to endorse China’s immense “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative to link Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe into a vast trading network.

 

A number of these diplomatic initiatives and re-alignments could easily fail.

 

Pakistan and India could fall out over Kashmir, and resolving the Afghanistan situation is the diplomatic equivalent of untying the Gordian Knot. The Taliban accepted the Russian invitation, but the Americans dismissed it. So too has the government in Kabal, but that could change, particularly if the Indians push the Afghan government to join the talks. Just the fact that the Taliban agreed to negotiate with Kabal, however, is a breakthrough, and since almost everyone in the region wants this long and terrible war to end, the initiative is hardly a dead letter.

 

There are other reefs and shoals out there.

 

Turkey and Russia still don’t trust each other, and while Iran currently finds itself on the same side as Moscow and Ankara, there is no love lost among any of them. But Iran needs a way to block Trump’s sanctions from strangling its economy, and that means shelving its historical suspicions of Turkey and Russia. Both countries say they will not abide by the U.S. sanctions, and the Russians are even considering setting up credit system to bypass using dollars in banking.

 

The Europeans are already knuckling under to the U.S. sanctions, but the U.S. and the European Union are not the only games in town. Organizations like the SCO, ASEAN, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and Latin America’s Mercosur are creating independent poles of power and influence, and while the U.S. has enormous military power, it no longer can dictate what other countries decide on things like war and trade.

 

From what direction on the Compass Rose the winds out of Washington will blow is hardly clear, but increasingly a number of countries are charting a course of their own.

 

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Rolling Snakes Eyes in the Indo-Pacific

Rolling Snake Eyes in the Indo-Pacific

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 3, 2017

 

With the world focused on the scary possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, not many people paid a whole lot of attention to a series of naval exercises this past July in the Malacca Strait, a 550-mile long passage between Sumatra and Malaysia through which pass over 50,000 ships a year. With President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanging threats and insults, why would the media bother with something innocuously labeled “Malabar 17”?

 

They should have.

 

Malabar 17 brought together the U.S., Japanese, and Indian navies to practice shutting down a waterway through which 80 percent of China’s energy supplies travel and to war game closing off the Indian Ocean to Chinese submarines. If Korea keeps you up at night, try imagining the outcome of choking off fuel for the world’s second largest economy.

 

While Korea certainly represents the most acute crisis in Asia, the diplomatic maneuvers behind Malabar 17 may be more dangerous in the long run. The exercise elevates the possibility of a confrontation between China, the U.S. and India, but also between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed countries that have fought three wars in the past 70 years.

 

This tale begins more than a decade and a half ago, when then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith—one of the most hawkish members of the George W. Bush administration—convened a meeting in May 2002 of the US-India Defense Policy Group and the government of India.

 

As one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, India traditionally avoided being pulled into the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

 

But the Bush administration had a plan for roping Indian into an alliance aimed at containing China, with a twist on an old diplomatic strategy: no stick, lots of carrots.

 

At the time India was banned from purchasing uranium on the international market because it had detonated a nuclear weapon in 1974 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There was a fear that if India had nuclear weapons, eventually so would Pakistan, a fear that turned real in 1998 when Islamabad tested its first nuclear device.

 

Pakistan also refused to sign the NPT.

 

Under the rules of the Treaty, both countries were excluded from the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group. While the ban was not a serious problem for Pakistan—it has significant uranium deposits—it was for India. With few domestic resources, India had to balance between using its uranium for weapons or to fuel nuclear power plants. Given that India is energy poor, that was a difficult choice.

 

When the Bush administration took over in 2001, it immediately changed the designation of China from “ strategic partner” to “strategic competitor.” It also resumed arms sales to New Delhi despite India’s 1998 violation of the NPT with a new round of tests.

 

Then Washington offered a very big carrot called the 1-2-3 Agreement that allow India to bypass the NPT and buy uranium so long as it is not used for weapons. This, however, would allow India to shift all of its domestic fuel into weapons production.

 

At the time, Pakistan—which asked for the same deal and was rebuffed—warned that the Agreement would ignite a nuclear arms race in Asia, which is precisely what has happened. India and Pakistan are busily adding to their nuclear weapons stocks, as is China and, of course, North Korea.

 

The 1-2-3 Agreement went into effect in 2008, although it has not been fully implemented.

 

Complicating this whole matter are on-going tensions between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, over which the two have fought three wars, the last of which came close to going nuclear. Rather than trying to defuse a very dangerous conflict, however, the Bush administration ignored Kashmir. So did the Obama administration, in spite of a pre-election promise by Barack Obama to deal with the on-going crisis. ,

 

It would appear that a quid pro quo for India moving closer to the US is Washington’s silence on Kashmir.

 

In 2016, the Obama administration designated India a “Major Defense Partner,” made Japan a permanent member of the Malabar exercises, and began training Indian pilots in “advanced aerial combat” at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

 

The Trump administration has added to the tensions between India and Pakistan by encouraging New Delhi to deploy troops in Afghanistan. While India already has paramilitary road building units in Southern Afghanistan, it does not have regular armed forces. From Islamabad’s point of view, Indian troops in Afghanistan will effectively sandwich Pakistan, north and south. So far, India has resisted the request.

 

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also rolled out a new military strategy called “Cold Start,” which allows the Indian military to attack and pursue “terrorists” as deep as 30 kilometers into Pakistani territory.

 

The danger is that a “Cold Start” operation could be misinterpreted by Islamabad as a major attack by the far larger Indian army. Faced with defeat, Pakistan might resort to tactical nuclear weapons, a decision that Pakistan has recently delegated to front-line commanders. Since India cannot respond in kind—it has no tactical nukes—New Delhi would either use its high yield strategic nuclear weapons or accept defeat. Since the latter is unlikely, the war could quickly escalate into a general nuclear exchange.

 

Such an exchange, according to a recent study by Scientific American, would not only kill tens of millions of people in both countries, it would cause a worldwide nuclear chill that would devastate agriculture in both hemispheres. In terms of impact, as scary as the Korea crisis is, a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be qualitatively worse.

 

During his recent Asia tour, Trump used the term “Indo-Pacific” on a number of occasions, a term that was originally coined by the rightwing Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Japan is currently in a tense standoff with China over several uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, and Abe is trying to dismantle Japan’s post-World War II “peace” constitution that restricts Japanese armed forces to “self-defense” operations.

 

Abe is also closely associated with a section of the Japanese political spectrum that argues that Japan was simply resisting western imperialism in World War II and denies or downplays its own colonial role and the massive atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China and Korea.

 

Asia looks like a pretty scary place these days. A rightwing Hindu fundamentalist government in India and a revanchist Japanese Prime Minister are allied with an increasingly unstable administration in Washington to surround and contain the second largest economy in the world.

 

There are some hopeful developments, however. For one, following the recent Communist Party Congress, China seems to be looking for a way to turn down the heat in the region. After initially threatening South Korea for deploying a US anti-missile system, the THAAD, Beijing has stepped back and cut a deal: no additional THAAD systems, no boycott of South Korean goods.

 

The Chinese also dialed down tensions in the mountainous Doldam region on the border of China and Bhutan with an agreement for a mutual withdrawal of troops. There has been some progress as well in finding a non-confrontational solution to China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea, although Beijing is not likely to abandon its artificial islands until there is a downsizing of US naval forces in the region.

 

And in spite of the tensions between the two, India and Pakistan formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this past summer, a security grouping largely dominated by Russia and China.

 

The danger here is that someone does something stupid and things get out of hand. There are those who point out that in spite of similar tensions during the Cold War, all concerned survived those dark times. That, however, ignores the fact that the world came very close to nuclear war, once by design—the Cuban missile crisis—and several times by accident.

 

If you keep rolling the dice, eventually they come up snake eyes.

 

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India and Pakistan:Thinking the Unthinkable

India & Pakistan: The Unthinkable

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 8, 2016

 

President-elect Donald Trump’s off the cuff, chaotic approach to foreign policy had at least one thing going for it, even though it was more the feel of a blind pig rooting for acorns than a thought out international initiative. In speaking with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump said he wanted “to address and find solutions to the county’s [Pakistan’s] problems.”

 

Whether Trump understands exactly how dangerous the current tensions between Pakistan and India are, or if anything will come from the Nov. 30 exchange between the two leaders, is anyone’s guess, but it is more than the Obama administration has done over the past eight years, in spite of a 2008 election promise to address the on-going crisis in Kashmir.

 

And right now that troubled land is the single most dangerous spot on the globe.

 

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the disputed province in the past six decades and came within a hair’s breathe of a nuclear exchange in 1999. Both countries are on a crash program to produce nuclear weapons, and between them they have enough explosive power to not only kill more than 20 million of their own people, but to devastate the world’s ozone layer and throw the Northern Hemisphere into a nuclear winter with a catastrophic impact on agriculture worldwide.

 

According to studies done at Rutgers, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of California Los Angeles, if both countries detonated 100 Hiroshima size bombs, it would generate between 1 and 5 million tons of smoke that within 10 days would drive temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere down to levels too cold for wheat production in much of Canada and Russia. The resulting 10 percent drop in rainfall—particularly hard hit would be the Asian monsoon—would exhaust worldwide food supplies, leading to the starvation of up to 100 million plus people.

 

Aside from the food crisis, a nuclear war in South Asia would destroy between 25 to 70 percent of the Northern Hemisphere’s ozone layer, resulting in a massive increase in dangerous ultraviolent radiation.

 

Lest anyone think that the chances of such a war are slight, consider two recent developments.

 

One, a decision by Pakistan to deploy low-yield tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons and to give permission for local commanders to decide when to use them.

 

In an interview with the German newspaper Deutsche Welle, Gregory Koblentz of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that if a “commander of a forward-deployed nuclear armed unit finds himself in a ‘use it or lose it’ situation and about to be overrun, he might decided to launch his weapons.”

 

Pakistan’s current Defense Minister, Muhammad Asif, told Geo TV, “If anyone steps on our soil and if anyone’s designs are a threat to our security, we will not hesitate to use those [nuclear] weapons for our defense.”

 

Every few years the Pentagon “war games” a clash between Pakistan and India over Kashmir: every game ends in a nuclear war.

 

The second dangerous development is the “Cold Start” strategy by India that would send Indian troops across the border to a depth of 30 kilometers in the advent of a terrorist attack like the 1999 Kargill incident in Kashmir, the 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, or the 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Since the Indian army is more than twice the size of Pakistan’s, there would be little that Pakistanis could do to stop such an invasion other than using battlefield nukes. India would then be faced with either accepting defeat or responding.

 

India does not currently have any tactical nukes, but only high yield strategic weapons—many aimed at China—whose primary value is to destroy cities. Hence a decision by a Pakistani commander to use a tactical warhead would almost surely lead to a strategic response by India, setting off a full-scale nuclear exchange and the nightmare that would follow in its wake.

 

With so much at stake, why is no one but a twitter-addicted foreign policy apprentice saying anything? What happened to President Obama’s follow through to his 2008 statement that the tensions over Kashmir “won’t be easy” to solve, but that doing so “is important”?

 

The initial strategy of pulling India into an alliance against China was dreamed up during the administration of George W. Bush, but it was Obama’s “Asia Pivot” that signed and sealed the deal. With it went a quid pro quo: if India would abandon its traditional neutrality, the Americans would turn a blind eye to Kashmir.

 

As a sweetener, the U.S. agreed to bypass the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement and allow India to buy uranium on the world market, something New Delhi had been banned from doing since it detonated a nuclear bomb in 1974 using fuel it had cribbed from U.S.-supplied nuclear reactors. In any case, because neither India nor Pakistan have signed the Agreement, both should be barred from buying uranium. In India’s case, the U.S. has waived that restriction.

 

The so-called 1-2-3 Agreement requires India to use any nuclear fuel it purchases in its civilian reactors, but frees it up to use its meager domestic supplies on its nuclear weapons program. India has since built two enormous nuclear production sites at Challakere and near Mysore, where, rumor has it, it is producing a hydrogen bomb. Both sites are off limits to international inspectors.

 

In 2008, when the Obama administration indicated it was interested in pursuing the 1-2-3 Agreement, then Pakistani Foreign minister Khurshid Kusuni warned that the deal would undermine the non-proliferation treaty and lead to a nuclear arms race in Asia. That is exactly what has come to pass. The only countries currently adding to their nuclear arsenals are Pakistan, India, China and North Korea.

 

While Pakistan is still frozen out of buying uranium on the world market, it has sufficient domestic supplies to fuel an accelerated program to raise its warhead production. Pakistan is estimated to have between 110 and 130 warheads and is projected to have 200 by 2020, surpassing Great Britain. India has between 110 and 120 nuclear weapons. Both countries have short, medium and long-range missiles, submarine ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles, plus nuclear-capable aircraft that can target each other’s major urban areas.

 

One problem in the current crisis is that both countries are essentially talking past one another.

 

Pakistan does have legitimate security concerns. It has fought and lost three wars with India over Kashmir since 1947, and it is deeply paranoid about the size of the Indian army.

 

But India has been the victim of several major terrorist attacks that have Pakistan’s fingerprints all over them. The 1999 Kargill invasion lasted a month and killed hundreds of soldiers on both sides. Reportedly the Pakistanis were considering arming their missiles with nuclear warheads until the Clinton administration convinced them to stand down.

 

Pakistan’s military has long denied that it has any control over terrorist organizations based in Pakistan, but virtually all intelligence agencies agree that, with the exception of the country’s home-grown Taliban, that is not the case. The Pakistani army certainly knew about a recent attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir that killed 19 soldiers.

 

In the past, India responded to such attacks with quiet counterattacks of its own, but this time around the right-wing nationalist government of Narendra Modi announced that the Indian military had crossed the border and killed more than 30 militants. It was the first time that India publically acknowledged a cross-border assault.

 

The Indian press has whipped up a nationalist fervor that has seen sports events between the two countries cancelled and a ban on using Pakistani actors in Indian films. The Pakistani press has been no less jingoistic.

 

In the meantime, the situation in Kashmir has gone from bad to worse. Early in the summer Indian security forces killed Buhan Wani, a popular leader of the Kashmir independence movement. Since then the province has essentially been paralyzed, with schools closed and massive demonstrations. Thousands of residents have been arrested, close to 100 killed, and hundreds of demonstrators wounded and blinded by the widespread use of birdshot by Indian security forces.

 

Indian rule in Kashmir has been singularly brutal. Between 50,000 and 80,000 people have died over the past six decades, and thousands of others have been “disappeared” by security forces. While in the past the Pakistani army aided the infiltration of terrorist groups to attack the Indian army, this time around the uprising is homegrown. Kashmiris are simply tired of military rule and a law which gives Indian security forces essentially carte blanc to terrorize the population.

 

Called the Special Powers Act—originally created in 1925 for the supression of Catholics in Northern Ireland, and widely used by the Israelis in the Occupied Territories—the law allows Indian authorities to arrest and imprison people without charge and gives immunity to Indian security forces.

 

As complex as the situation in Kashmir is, there are avenues to resolve it. A good start would be to suspend the Special Powers Act and send the Indian Army back to the barracks.

 

The crisis in Kashmir began when the Hindu ruler of the mostly Muslim region opted to join India when the countries were divided in 1947. At the time, the residents were promised that a UN-sponsored referendum would allow residents to choose India, Pakistan or independence. That referendum has never been held.

 

Certainly the current situation cannot continue. Kashmir has almost 12 million people and no army or security force—even one as large as India’s—can maintain a permanent occupation if the residents don’t want it. Instead of resorting to force, India should ratchet down its security forces and negotiate with Kashmiris for an interim increase in local autonomy.

 

But in the long run, the Kashmiris should have their referendum and India and Pakistan will have to accept the results.

 

What the world cannot afford is for the current tensions to spiral down into a military confrontation that could easily get out of hand. The U.S., through its aid to Pakistan—$860 million this year—has some leverage, but it cannot play a role if its ultimate goal is an alliance to contain China, a close ally of Pakistan.

 

Neither country would survive a nuclear war, and neither country should be spending its money on an arms race. Almost 30 percent of India’s population is below the poverty line, as are 22 percent of Pakistan’s. The $51 billion Indian defense budget and the $7 billion Pakistan spends could be put to far better use.

 

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