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China

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is an immense maritime space of great geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. It is a crossroad for sea trade that connects the advanced economies of the East and the West. At the same time, there are also many factors that threaten its stability. These are often closely related with the international dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, to the point that the two areas can be considered as single reality.

West: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa

On its western part, the Indian Ocean touches the shores of the vast African continent. This creates a peculiar mix of opportunities and challenges for coastal states like South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya. Thanks to their position, they can easily reach important economic areas such as India, the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Engaging in maritime trade with these regions could provide a major economic boost to these African states and improve the living conditions of their citizens. In addition, emerging powers like China and India are heavily spending in Africa to access its much-needed natural resources and exploit the opportunities for high investment returns. Yet, in the case of China, this also raises concerns. While African states welcome Chinese investments as they come with no legal precondition on the respect of civil and human rights, some worry that its economic penetration might result in political leverage and in a form of economic neo-colonialism.

There are also two states whose situation is particular. The first is Ethiopia, the powerhouse of the Horn of Africa. As other states along the continent’s eastern coast, it can greatly benefit from international sea trade, but unfortunately it is a landlocked country. This largely explains the recent deal it reached with Eritrea to settle their longstanding conflict: turning Eritrea into a friend would enable Ethiopia to access the sea and engage in maritime trade along one of the busiest routes in the world. As a matter of fact, the Red Sea is an obliged passage for ships sailing between Europe and Asia. Ethiopia has even expressed its intention to build a navy, which is a clear sign of its seafaring ambitions.

The second peculiar case is Somalia. In theory, it is also poised to take advantage from its position on the Indian Ocean, but in practice it is a failed state ruled by armed groups where the central government has not enough power to pursue such kind of maritime policy.

This raises the issue of the threats to sea trade along the Western shores of the Indian Ocean. Somalia is part of the problem, as it has become a hub for piracy. The difficult economic conditions have pushed many Somalis to start attacking cargos navigating along the country’s coasts. This became a serious problem that prompted the international community to organize a military operation to patrol the Somali waters and combat piracy. These efforts succeeded in securing the area and in reducing the number of attacks, but as long as the socio-economic conditions of coastal population do not improve, the risk of piracy will remain.

Then, there are two important chokepoints that connect the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean via the Red Sea, which can be considered as a peripheral area of the Indian Ocean putting it in communication with Europe: first, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait; second, the Suez Canal. Both passages are essential for sea trade, and any interruption would have a major impact on the global economy.

North: India & Hormuz

Located to the North, India is certainly the main regional player. A large and fast-growing economy, it is one of today’s most important rising powers and its influence is growing worldwide. New Delhi considers the Indian Ocean as “its own” maritime space, a vector for power projection and economic growth but also an area to be preserve from the intromissions of hostile powers for the sake of national security. India can enormously benefit from its position protracting towards the ocean midway along the vital East-West sea lanes, and in fact it already taking advantage from it. At the same time, by building a powerful navy it can extend its power abroad and protect its interests. As a matter of fact, New Delhi is concerned over the presence of foreign actors in the Indian Ocean, most notably Beijing. The PRC is indeed investing heavily in the region on the basis of its Maritime Silk Road plan, aimed at creating a string of ports to sustain trade with Europe. This is of central importance for China’s economy, which relies on sea trade for exporting goods and importing hydrocarbons; but some consider that the real objective of the project is to extend its influence in the region by economic means. In a context of broader Sino-Indian rivalry, New Delhi worries about Beijing’s presence in countries like the Maldives or Sri Lanka, considering it as a potential threat to its security. Similarly, India also sees unfavorably the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will connect the PRC with the ocean via the port of Gwadar.

Again, there is also a strategic chokepoint to consider: the Hormuz Strait, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Indian Ocean. This passage is vital for tankers carrying Middle Eastern oil to Europe and Asia and any interruption would have catastrophic economic consequences. Unfortunately, this is not a remote event: in case of a serious standoff between the US and Iran, the Strait would soon become a major flashpoint, since Teheran’s deterrence strategy is largely based on blocking the Strait; which it can do with relative ease due to geographic reasons.

East: the Indo-Pacific

To the East, the Indonesian archipelago and Australia separate the Indian Ocean from the Pacific. Similarly to Somalia, the waters around Indonesia had become infested with pirates in the recent past; and the phenomenon has been reduced only thanks to multilateral military and development efforts. Yet, if the living conditions of coastal populations deteriorated again, the problem may arise once more.

That said, Indonesia and Australia benefit from their position between the two oceans. It allows them to project their power in both directions, to reach the large European and East Asian markets and finally to access Africa with its resources and its potential for investments. Indonesia is particularly relevant in this regard: it is another emerging economy with a great potential, and its virtually controls all the major straits connecting the two oceans: Sunda, Lombok and most importantly Malacca. Indonesia’s growth is largely due to its position on these sea lanes, and Singapore has based its incredible wealth on it. Again, these passages are essential for maritime trade between Europe and Asia as well as for the latter’s energy security; and would become hotspots in case of war, notably between the US and China. If the US Navy closed them, it could seriously harm the tenure of the PRC’s economy. At the same time, they are also essential for American allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; meaning that the US will use its naval power to ensure no hostile power blocks the Straits.

The eastern part of the Indian Ocean plays a fundamental role for maritime security; and the importance of the juncture between the two Oceans is leading many scholars, analysts and policy-makers to consider them as a single maritime region: the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean is extremely important for states in East Asia because it represents the necessary passage to reach Europe; and the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean and of the Asia-Pacific are closely related. China’s New Silk Road initiative, the forays of its Navy in the waters of the Indian Ocean, the Sino-Indian competition, the free flow of oil from the Gulf and piracy in Indonesia are all strategic issues that tie the two oceanic regions. This explains why the concept of Indo-Pacific is also taking importance in American strategic discourse: the economic and security dynamics of the two areas are so intertwined that they must be considered as a single space. Other powers are applying the same logic, and this is having practical consequences: the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue uniting the US, Japan, India and Australia indicates their willingness to strengthen their political and military cooperation to face shared security challenges like the rise of China; and it represents the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a political and strategic reality.

Conclusion: an Indo-Pacific future?

Many scholars believe that “the future is Asian”, which is even the title of a recent book by Parag Khanna. But Asia’s rise largely depends on trade with Europe and on oil imports from the Middle East across the Indian Ocean. As such, Asian states have major strategic concerns in this area. China, Japan and South Korea need to keep the sea lanes open. India is an emerging power whose influence is growing across the world via the sea. Indonesia is the pivot connecting the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The United States, the world’s primary security provider, is facing many challenges in both Oceans and is committed to preserving the freedom of navigation. Moreover, the interests of the various stakeholders in the area are sometimes colliding, such as in the case of China and India. As such, with Asia’s importance growing every year in both economic and political terms, the Indo-Pacific is also gaining primary strategic relevance.

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Is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Failing?

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, is a massive infrastructural project announced for the first  time in 2013. It is part of the broader “One Belt, One Road” initiative, launched in the same year and also called OBOR. However, the CPEC has recently received several setbacks that are raising doubts over its completion. So, what is the future of the project?

Why the CPEC?

The CPEC is one of the six “Economic Corridors” that China is creating in cooperation with other countries in the context of the OBOR initiative to improve transportation, intensify trade and boost the respective economies with the broader aim of extending China’s economic and political presence across the globe and ultimately reaching the vast European market. The CPEC should pass through Pakistan to connect China’s landlocked Xinjiang province with the Arabian Sea; and it pursues multiple objectives.

First, Xinjiang hosts significant natural resources but is economically poor and affected by discontent among the local Uighur population. With the CPEC and other region-focused projects, China wants to develop the area so to improve its living conditions, exploit its economic assets and make of it a crossroad for East-West trade.

Second, the PRC wants to open an alternative access to the ocean. Today, cargos sailing to and from Europe as well as oil tankers from the Middle East need to pass through Malacca and other straits, which are extremely vulnerable chokepoints that could easily be blocked by the US Navy in case of war. This would be catastrophic for the PRC, which consequently wants to have an access to the sea that avoids these exposed passages.

Third, the CPEC will foster relations with Pakistan. The two countries are already primary partners, and the project will create closer ties by increasing economic interdependency and by improving the living conditions of locals. A solid bilateral partnership is also mutually beneficial considering their relations with India. Especially for Pakistan, having China as an ally is extremely useful to keep India at bay; but the contrary it is also true, even though Beijing tries to downplay the existing problems with New Delhi.

The CPEC in practice

To reach these strategic objectives, China plans to build a series of infrastructures in Pakistan. By now, it has already invested at least 60 billion US dollars in the initiative; which includes motorways, railways, ports, electric power plants, pipelines and more. Several Special Economic Zones will also be established. All these projects will be connected one with the other to some degree, with the aim to create economic prosperity and link Xinjiang with Pakistan’s southern shores.

A particular relevance has been given to Gwadar, located in south-western Pakistan along the coast next to Iran. It will be the endpoint of the CPEC, and one of its main centres. In particular, Gwadar’s harbour is being expanded and upgraded: it will be transformed into a “smart port” surrounded by a Special Economic Zone that will host a large industrial area. It will be served by a new international airport, several facilities to improve the local living conditions, and it will be linked with the rest of the country and with China by road and train. The port became partially operational in November 2016, when a joint Sino-Pakistani truck convoy successfully travelled from north to south across Pakistan and reached Gwadar where the containers were shipped to overseas destinations. Yet, the remaining projects are still under construction.

As far as other components are concerned, nine of them are already operational. These include a coal-powered electricity generation plant in Karachi and a similar one in the Punjab region, several windfarms and the Quaid-e-Azam solar park, one of the largest in the world. Other thirteen facilities are being completed and are scheduled to become soon operational.

Yet, there have been some setbacks as well. Combined with Pakistan’s shaky financial condition, this has raised doubts over the general tenure of the CPEC project.

The problems of CPEC

The first aspect to consider is that Pakistan’s political and financial situation is not very promising for the future of the CPEC.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was a supporter of the project, but in August 2018 he was substituted by Mr. Imran Khan, who on the contrary has criticized the initiative out of concerns over corruption and lack of transparency. He also complained that the billions of dollars that China is investing in the country bring little benefit to Pakistani workers, as the facilities are almost entirely build by Chinese nationals. This does not mean that he has rejected the CPEC, but he is certainly less enthusiast than his predecessor. In addition, Pakistan is crossing troubled waters in financial terms. According to The Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper, the country’s owes 40 billion to China. This has raised the alarm over a “debt trap”; meaning that China may exploit its financial leverage on Pakistan to exert political influence. In this regard, it is true that Pakistan’s net public debt is estimated at 67.6% of the GDP, that its external debt amounted to 82 billion dollars at the end of 2017, and that the federal government must face a chronic penury of foreign currency; which is a problem when having to repay external debts.

Therefore, there are doubts about Pakistan’s financial tenure in the immediate future. The country received various loans from the IMF in the past, but it has rejected the latest 8-billion-dollar bailout plan. Instead, Mr. Khan’s government preferred to demand financial aid to a few “friendly countries”, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China. This has already brought some fruits. An agreement has been reached between Islamabad and Abu Dhabi for a support package worth 6.2 billion dollars, with 3 billion scheduled to be sent shortly. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s Prince bin Salman will soon sign a deal for building a 10-billion-dollar oil refinery in Gwadar, thus adding further significance to the port city. Cooperation in other sector will also be discussed.

In regard to China, the situation is more complex. Bilateral relations remain good, but there are growing concerns about the completion of the CPEC; at least in all of its parts. In the context of its troubled financial situation, Pakistan has recently announced its withdrawal from the Rahim Yar Khan power station, on the basis that electricity production capability is already sufficient and that consequently the project would not be economically viable. Yet, this may be a political excuse to hide the real problem, namely that there are not the funds for it. In addition, there are delays in the construction of the smart port in Gwadar. In this regard, Chinese companies have allegedly warned that Pakistan will need to pay to cover the additional costs caused by this postponement.

These events have created much speculation about the completion of the CPEC as a whole, especially in India, where major newspapers like the Times of India have reported such news. As a matter of fact, there is a sensible degree of strategic rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi, who perceives its northern neighbour and its close ties with Islamabad as a potential threat. On its part, China has responded to the recent events along a double line. State-sponsored media like the Global Times have soon published articles where they reassure about the solidity of the Sino-Pakistani partnership and about the determination of both sides to end the works on the CPEC. At the same time, they have accused other countries of being “jealous” and of having “aggressive intentions”. It is clear that the message was a response to the news about the recent setbacks of the CPEC project reported by Indian media. By explicitly addressing the recent reports by Indian news channels, the Global Times has also downplayed the entity of Pakistan’s China-owned debt and have suggested third parties not to meddle in the issue; all while affirming that India will also benefit from the CPEC. According to such Chinese articles, which cite the PRC’s embassy in Pakistan as a source for the figures, Islamabad does not owe 40 billion dollars to Beijing. Instead, they claim the debt only amounts to 6 just over billion, including interests.

Apart from this, the security aspect should also be mentioned. The CPEC crosses territories where terrorist and separatist groups are present. Some of them do not see China favourably, and this represents a non-negligible threat to the project. In fact, some attacks have already taken place against Chinese objectives. In August 2018, a suicide bombing injured some Chinese engineers. In November, a secessionist movement called Balochistan Liberation Army targeted the Chinese consulate in Karachi. By now, none of these events has seriously hampered the CPEC, but this may be the beginning of a trend that could hamper the project in the long term.

Conclusion: what about the future?

With such contradictory reports, it is difficult to assess the future of the CPEC and the real entity of the China-laid “debt trap” looming over Pakistan. What is sure is that Islamabad has indeed some financial problems, and that this may negatively impact the project. The recent cancellation of the Rahim Yar Khan power plant and the delays over Gwadar’s smart port suggest that there may already be complications in this sense. Yet, unless Pakistan enters in a serious financial crisis or faces a collapse of the state, it seems that the project will be competed at least in part. That said, the other certain thing is that the CPEC and China’s presence in Pakistan is not viewed positively by India, and in geopolitical terms this is probably the most relevant aspect.

The rise of Indonesia

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country by population and is one of South-East Asia’s most dynamic economies.

Located at the juncture between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it has the potential to become a leading regional power.

However, its location is also a source of considerable challenges that Indonesia will have to manage attentively in the coming years.

Indonesia’s Geography

The very name Indonesia is revealing: it comes from Greek and means “Indian Islands”. As a matter of fact, Indonesia is an archipelago located at the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, and this is a key factor that has shaped its geopolitical thinking.

In terms of dimension and configuration, Indonesia is a vast but fragmented state. It counts over 18,000 islands; the most important of which are Sumatra, Java, the southern section of Borneo, Sulawesi and the western part of New Guinea.

These islands, covered by a thick rainforest rich in wildlife, have a volcanic origin. This means that Indonesia is vulnerable to seismic events and tsunamis; something that has a negative impact on its human security environment.

The country extends over almost 8 million square kilometres if we take into account its maritime space including the Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. Combined with its archipelagic nature, this makes it difficult for the central state to exert its power over all the territory; also, because fragmentation is reflected in demographic terms: the population exceeds 260 million citizens divided in more than 300 ethnic groups; and this has important implications on the country’s geopolitics.

Moving on, Indonesia’s position has a deep impact on its foreign affairs. Located at the crossroad between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia plays a pivotal role for international maritime trade.

Sumatra is the southern boundary of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways and a strategic chokepoint. But Indonesia also controls other important straits; notably Sunda, Lombok and Makassar. These are all essential for trade between Europe and Asia, but also for the latter’s energy security.

Most of the oil it consumes transits through these narrow passages; which explains their geostrategic relevance. Indonesia hugely benefits from its role as a gateway between the two oceans, but this also brings considerable strategic problems because foreign powers have always been trying to control the archipelago.

This continues today: China, the US, Japan and India all have major interests at stake in the Indonesian Straits, and are trying to expand their influence on the country. Finally, the archipelago also hosts important natural resources like oil, gas, minerals, timber and fish. These commodities are a source of wealth for Indonesia, but also another driver for the presence of external powers.

Indonesia’s Geopolitical Thinking

Indonesia’s nature as an archipelago and its “crossroad location”, a concept known as posisi silang, have shaped its geopolitical thinking since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1949. Indonesia had to assert its authority over its surrounding seas to ensure its prosperity and security. A first step in this sense was the 1957 Djuanda Declaration, by which Indonesia claimed its sovereignty over all the maritime areas around the archipelago; especially those located between its main islands like the Java and Flores seas.

This stance was later recognized internationally by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. The Djuanda Declaration was the first step towards a more comprehensive doctrine called “Maritime Archipelagic Outlook”, or Wawasan Nusantara Bahari. First formulated in 1966, this Doctrine still stands today. It considers that Indonesia’s location leaves it vulnerable to foreign meddling and that its fragmented geography endangers the unity of the state; but it is also the basis for justifying Indonesia’s leading regional role.

In geostrategic terms, the doctrine considers Java and its sea as Indonesia’s core, which must be protected from external threats. Applying a mandala logic, it identifies three concentric layers that are the base of Indonesia’s foreign and defence policy.

The innermost circle is Indonesia itself, the middle one extends to South-East Asia and Australia, while the external zone includes the rest of the world. The sea is equally important from a geoeconomic point of view.

Indonesia is a trade crossroad, it has an important fishing industry and its waters host important hydrocarbon deposits, estimated to hold 3.7 billion barrels of oil and 2,900 billion cubic feet of gas. As such, securing the sea has a primary importance for the country’s economy.

Finally, in geopolitical terms, it considers the sea as the space connecting the various islands that form its geographically and culturally fragmented territory. This configuration makes separatism easier, and therefore is seen as a threat to the unity of the state; even though it is also argued that the separation of the different national groups reduces the risk of inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, the sea is the mean by which foreign powers have reached the archipelago in the past.

Consequently, Indonesia believes that controlling the sea is a precondition to preserve the unity and the independence of the state. In this sense, it seeks to achieve resilience both at home and in neighbouring states, assuming that Indonesia is safe only if the archipelago and the surrounding countries are stable.

Yet, Indonesia must face several challenges. Apart from numerous secessionist movements, some of which have been successful, it must also cope with illegal fishing, smuggling, unauthorized immigration and piracy. The latter was once a major problem, but it has been greatly reduced thanks to multilateral efforts and by improving the living conditions of coastal areas.

Terrorism is also a matter of concern, and several attacks have already taken place.

In economic terms, even though Indonesia’s national strategy emphasizes the cohesion of the state and aims to limit foreign meddling, most of its hydrocarbons and of its resources in general are exploited by foreign corporations. In addition, there is a great disparity between urban areas like Jakarta and the rest of the country, especially outside Java.

Indonesia’s power

Indonesia can be considered a middle power, but it is definitely a rising one. Its GDP is the largest in South-East Asia, and in 2017 it amounted to 3.25 trillion measured in US dollars of the same year in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. This ranked the country as the world’s 7th largest economy, and it is projected to become the 4th by 2050. Indonesia’s steady 5% growth rate is helped by low inflation, a budget deficit under control and a public debt representing just 29% of the GDP. Moreover, saving is quite high at around 32% and investments are flowing in, thus paving the way to a continued growth. The trade balance is positive, driven by the export of commodities like oil, gas, coal, metals and palm oil; but also many other low added-value products such as clothing and electric components. Always in terms of PPP, its per capita GDP reached 12,700 dollars in 2017: a still low figure, but a remarkable progress from past levels. Unemployment is only 5.5%; yet, agriculture still retains 32% of the workforce and around 10% of Indonesians live below the poverty line, with 21% remaining at risk. The country also has real problems in terms of corruption and inequality, and must face notable environmental challenges: rising sea levels, deforestation, and extreme weather are already causing notable losses to its economy and are menacing its human security.

Indonesia’s armed forces are also evolving. It spends about 0.8% of its GDP on defence; and in spite of the emphasis given to the sea, the Army has a greater importance than the Navy. Land forces, notably marines and special forces units trained for asymmetric warfare, are indeed important for such a fragmented country; but the Navy remains underdeveloped. It mainly relies on corvettes, and having only 8 frigates and less than 5 diesel-electric submarines seems insufficient, even though it has a good park of minesweepers and there are talks to buy more subs. Similarly, the Air Force only counts around 40 fighters and some attack aircraft. These two branches have quite advanced equipment and are better than those of most ASEAN countries, but Indonesia will need to expand them to affirm itself as a regional power and to cope with challenges like China’s rise.

Conclusion: Indonesia’s foreign policy today

The maritime dimension, control over the straits, internal stability, autonomy from foreign influences and an active regional role have been the cornerstones of Indonesia’s foreign policy for decades. In 1955, Indonesia held a conference in Bandung that marked the birth of the non-aligned movement of states that did not want to side with neither the US nor the USSR.

Today, it still keeps this stance. Regionally, it supports integration through the Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN; and it aspires to become its leader. In its relations with external powers, notably the US and China, it attempts maximizing its autonomy by keeping ties with all of them. Indonesia maintains good political and trade relations with both, but it is worth mentioning that it hosts a significant Chinese diaspora which represents around 1% of the population and runs many successful business activities. At the same time, it also cooperates with other powers. Japan and India are important economic partners and security cooperation is growing, especially with the latter. Indonesia also trades with European countries; which are also important arms suppliers.

It is expected that Indonesia’s foreign policy will continue along this line in the next future: trying to maintain its partnership with multiple countries so to maximize its benefit and freedom of action. But in the evolving international scenery of the Indo-Pacific, where the US maintain a strong presence all while China and India are rising, it will be hard for Indonesia not to take sides.

What are China’s Interests in Afghanistan?

The inexorable economic rise of China is producing political and strategic repercussions in all directions. One of the more interesting cases is China’s growing interest in Afghanistan, a country wracked by multiple conflicts and intermittently occupied by foreign powers for nearly forty years.

China and Afghanistan are immediate neighbours as they share a short 76 km border. The border point is distant from urban centres on both sides as it interfaces with the extremity of the Wakhan corridor on the Afghan side, and the outer edge of the Chalachigu Valley on the Chinese side.

The immediacy of Afghanistan’s geographic proximity to China makes the country hard to ignore. But in view of Afghanistan’s profile as an essentially failed state which has been in political and military turmoil for four decades, China can hardly afford to take its eyes of the place.

Add to that the fact that global powers, notably two superpowers in the form of the former Soviet Union and the United States, have maximally intervened in Afghan affairs (notably by occupying the country), then we can legitimately wonder as to why China hasn’t also forcefully intervened in Afghan affairs. Not yet anyway.

Welcome to KJ Vids. In this video we will examine the reasons behind China’s growing involvement in Afghanistan.

What is the full extent of Chinese involvement in Afghanistan?

China is reportedly building its first military base in Afghanistan. It is important to note that the Chinese government denies these claims and only admits to building a training camp in the Wakhan corridor to train Afghan forces. According to Chinese military sources, Beijing is helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade in the remote north-eastern corner of the country.

But even if we take these Chinese denials at face value, the fact that China admits to training Afghan forces is in and of itself of great political and strategic import. It speaks to growing Chinese influence in Kabul and signals that China wants to get involved in the military affairs of its volatile western neighbour.

Despite its massive economic clout, and projections that it will displace America as the world’s biggest economy as early as 2032, China hasn’t invested in a big political presence overseas. It may surprise many viewers that China has only one avowed military base overseas and that’s situated in Djibouti.

The newly opened base in Djibouti is designed to serve multiple military and economic functions but above all it is going to provide China with vital experience in how to exercise and manage power projection well beyond its borders. It is perhaps China’s first step toward projecting hard power at a global level, akin to how Western powers flex their muscles on the world stage.

The training camp in the Wakhan corridor (with or without Chinese troops) is clearly not about power projection on the world stage. For a start it borders china and is in close proximity to the restive Chinese region of Xinjiang. China faces serious unrest in this region as a result of continually repressing the region’s indigenous Muslim community known as the Uyghurs. In that context, the base in the remote north-eastern corner of Afghanistan is focussed on counter-terrorism operations and to that end it is potentially more concerned with Chinese security than Afghanistan’s. More on this later.

But beyond latest reports of Sino-Afghan military cooperation, just how involved is Beijing in Afghanistan? Well, for a start China maintains a relatively large embassy in Kabul, a reflection of the scope of its operations across the country. China has an abiding economic interest in Afghanistan, primarily not because the country is attractive economically, but because Afghanistan is central to two of China’s core regional economic ambitions.

These are the Belt and Road Initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. China needs a measure of stability and security in Afghanistan in order to safeguard its massive regional investments, stretching from Pakistan to Central Asia. To that end, China began to step up its activities in Afghanistan from 2014 onwards.

At the economic level, Beijing is involved in the Afghan economy in multiple ways. First, China gives Afghanistan direct financial aid. Statistics vary but according to conservative estimates Beijing has given Kabul at least $410 million in direct aid since 2014.

Second, China has emerged as Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor, focussing mostly on minerals and other natural resource extraction. China was also the first country to begin extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan.

But not all Chinese investment projects have progressed according to plan, in part because of lack of security but equally because of the nature of Chinese overseas economic and commercial enterprise. Concerns about contractual issues and the general aggressive and single-minded approach of Chinese firms – often to the detriment of local workers’ rights – have ground some projects to a halt. The best example is the Mes Aynak concession (concerned with copper ore extraction) which was awarded to Chinese firms more than ten years ago but which has so far failed to even get off the ground.

At the political level, China stepped up its involvement in Afghanistan in late 2014 by trying to set up a “forum” to revive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This was followed by other initiatives, notably in partnership with Pakistan. But China’s attempt at peace-making has been largely unsuccessful, reflecting two inescapable facts. Foremost, China lacks experience in foreign conflict resolution. Second, as an ally of Pakistan, China is not seen as an honest broker by the Afghan government.

But to fully understand the drivers of China’s involvement in Afghanistan and Beijing’s desired outcomes we must take account of geopolitics and specifically China’s competition with major global and regional powers in this arena. Let’s start with India.

Undermining India in Afghanistan

Despite its substantial investments in Afghanistan – and notwithstanding its role as a major donor to the Afghan government – it is important to note that China is not in the first tier of active states in the Afghan arena. That distinction goes to three countries, namely the United States, Pakistan and Iran.

China belongs to a second-tier group of countries that are vying for influence in Afghanistan. The other member states of this tier are India and Russia. Similar to China, the Indians have also stepped up their activities in Afghanistan, although not in the sharp manner as Beijing post-2014. By contrast, New Delhi has incrementally increased its activities in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.

India has to tread carefully in Afghanistan so as not to draw Pakistan’s wrath. The latter remains the single most influential player in Afghanistan and in view of broader Indo-Pakistan hostilities, any significant movement by New Delhi inside Afghanistan is likely to draw a fierce reaction from Islamabad.

The Indian embassy in Kabul was bombed twice, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, causing dozens of fatalities. The 2008 attack – which killed 58 people including an Indian brigadier general – was attributed to Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency by US intelligence officials.

Unlike Pakistan, China is not interested in taking “kinetic” action against Indian interests in Afghanistan. In fact, the two powers are known to cooprate on joint projects in Afghanistan, notably developing the new Afghan diplomatic corps.

Limited cooperation notwithstanding, China is clearly interested at containing Indian influence in Afghanistan as any increase of influence there positively impacts India’s standing in the broader Central Asia region. India is fast making inroads in Central Asia – and although it cannot displace the two biggest actors in that arena, namely China and Turkey – nevertheless Beijing is fearful of the potential political impact of New Delhi’s outreach to Central Asian states.

Keeping America in check

As we have seen in relation to India, the strategic impact of China’s involvement in Afghanistan primarily serves to augment the role and standing of a Chinese ally, notably Pakistan.

The same pattern can be observed in relation to China’s view of and approach towards the US presence in Afghanistan. In hard power terms – specifically in terms of the deployment of military forces and centrality to the counter-insurgency campaign against the Taliban and its allies – the US is the dominant foreign power in Afghanistan.

But a more nuanced appraisal of power and influence projection in Afghanistan cannot fail but to identify Pakistan and Iran as the true dominant foreign powers not least because they are Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and will continue to compete for dominance long after the US has departed the arena.

In view of its broader rivalry with the US, notably in the South China Sea, the People’s Republic does not the want the US to succeed in any conflict arena, let alone not one with massive geopolitical importance, as demonstrated by the longstanding and multi-faceted Afghan conflict.

To that end, China’s strategic posture in Afghanistan complements the role and standing of another one of its allies, notably the Islamic Republic of Iran. But whilst Iran takes active measures against US and broader Western interests in Afghanistan – by for instance allegedly directly supporting the Taliban in military operations – China is content to limit its containment strategy to the political and diplomatic levels.

The domestic dimension

Finally, in assessing China’s role and influence in Afghanistan, it is important to take full stock of the domestic considerations informing Chinese strategy. As stated earlier, China has a counter-terrorism stake in the conflict as it fears infiltration by Uyghur and other militants from Afghanistan into China’s restive Xinjiang region.

Furthermore, the Islamic State group is active in Afghanistan and by definition this jihadist group is deeply opposed to the Chinese presence that country. More broadly, the Islamic State (or Daesh as its detractors call it) is incensed by China’s massive repression of Uyghurs and other Chinese Muslims, specifically in Xinjiang but also across China as a whole. China fears that the Islamic State group may try to conduct operations inside China and the Wakhan corridor would be the preferred infiltration point. This explains China’s military interest in the corridor.

But beyond jihadist groups, all the authentic Islamic currents in Afghanistan are appalled by China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The Chinese have reportedly imprisoned up to one million Uyghur Muslims in so-called “counter-extremism centres” which amount to concentration camps.

If China wants to be successful in Afghanistan, and ultimately to play a stabilising role by reconciling the Afghan government with its opponents, then it must also properly address concerns about its treatment of Chinese Muslim minorities.             

 

The role of ports in the global economy

Ports are maritime commercial facilities usually located on a coast or shore that contains one or more harbours where ships can dock and transfer cargo as well as people. Ports constitute a major component of the global transportation sector and are linked to the expanding world economy. In other words, ports are a means of integration into the global economic system.

As the WTO-agreements since the 1980s lifted several pre-existing international trade barriers, manufacturers all over the world vertically disintegrated their production systems into geographically dispersed and flexibly organised supply chain systems . The international trade regime began allowing manufacturers to relocate their production and assembly plants to more cost-efficient locations in developing economies.

Ports have been at the hearts of commerce for centuries and they only kept gaining more significance . Before the invention of aeroplanes, sea had been the main mode of transport for settlers, travellers and migrants for centuries. They played important roles in the industrial revolutions and act as a catalyst to industrialisation. While early ports were mostly used as harbours, today they are more often referred to multi-modal distribution hubs having transport links using sea, river, canal, road, rail and air routes.

Is Sri Lanka, China’s New Colony?

China & Sri Lanka: an enduring alliance?

China’s rise as a global economic power – and potentially a global political power too – is attracting more and more attention. From the so-called “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) to China’s increasingly aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, the activities of the People’s Republic are one of the biggest stories in international relations.

Whilst in the West, and particularly in Britain and America, the debate is often centred on whether the inexorable side of China represents a threat or an opportunity, the countries living in close proximity to China are scrambling to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power.

Some countries, notably Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, find themselves in territorial disputes with China as a result of the People’s Republic aggressive boundary setting moves in the south China Sea.

In addition, there is the more long-standing political dispute between China and Taiwan centred on the former’s claims of sovereignty over the latter. What all these myriad territorial and political disputes have in common however is the involvement of the United States.

In nearly all cases the US intervenes on behalf of states who feel aggrieved by China’s actions in the South China Sea and beyond. Whilst Washington justifies its own aggressive actions – including challenging Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly islands – as part of its drive to ensure “freedom of navigation” in disputed maritime areas, the reality is that the US is above all concerned with the prospect of China displacing America as the dominant regional power.

But there is another side to the rise of China, both in its immediate environment, regionally and more broadly in a global setting. This is a story of successful Chinese outreach to multiple states, characterised by massive investments in infrastructure and resulting political influence.

One of these states is Sri Lanka, a country strategically perched next to India in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka has come a long way since gaining independence from Britain in February 1948. In the 70 years since independence Sri Lanka has established relatively stable political institutions, in addition to successfully prosecuting a quarter century long counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil separatists in the north and east.

Sri Lanka is important to China for many reasons, much of it revolving around the island nation’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean and its proximity to China’s great rival India. In addition, Sri Lanka presents China with a wide range of investment opportunities which in the long-term can help entrench Chinese influence in the country.

China’s strategic motive

In keeping with its emerging great power status China’s approach to foreign policy is shaped primarily by strategic considerations. To that end, the Chinese leadership has identified three core strategic rivals and potential enemies, namely India, Japan and the United States. Historic Chinese relations with all three powers has been marked by high tension and conflict, particularly with India and Japan.

Therefore, the thrust of Chinese foreign policy is to blunt the influence and reach of these three powers in China’s immediate neighbourhood, or areas where China has traditionally identified as its backyard.

For example, China’s support for North Korea is designed to deter the United States from acknowledging Taiwanese independence. More broadly, China’s support for North Korea is also designed to send a strong message to Japan, whose re-militarisation unsettles China’s historical consciousness.

To its immediate West China is confronted by the Indian giant, a country whose population is only marginally smaller than China’s. India not only challenges China economically, but also politically, on account of the fact that India is considered a “democracy” (albeit with an Asian twist) whereas China is still deeply authoritarian and officially at least still wedded to a communist ideology.

Furthermore, at a strategic level, India is a major rival to China, as similar to the People’s Republic India is incrementally augmenting its military capability with a view to projecting power well beyond its immediate sphere of influence. The development of a so-called blue-water navy (basically a maritime force with global reach and capability) is demonstrative of India’s ultimate ambitions.

In view of India’s strategic ambitions, China has devised a variety of economic, political, diplomatic and military tools to contain its big neighbour to the West. In terms of direct political intervention, and in order to offset Indian meddling in Chinese affairs (as demonstrated by India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama), China is suspected of supporting left-wing militant forces in south-eastern India. These forces have come to be known as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency and are based mostly in Andhra Pradesh state.

In the diplomatic and economic spheres, China is engaged in extensive outreach to India’s neighbouring states, in particular Pakistan, which is viewed as a counter to India in the subcontinent. China has massive investments in Pakistan, notably in the deep-sea port of Gwadar. More broadly, China is stepping up its longstanding military cooperation with Pakistan, particularly in the ballistic and cruise missiles sphere.

China’s outreach to Sri Lanka is ultimately explainable in the context of China’s strategic posture and associated calculus. Although Sri Lanka is not a large and powerful state like Pakistan – and its relations with India is nowhere near as fraught as Indo-Pakistani relations – nevertheless by establishing influence on the island nation China gains more leverage in its emerging great power rivalry with India.

What does Sri Lanka offer to India?

As stated earlier, Sri Lanka’s close proximity to India inevitably makes it attractive to Chinese strategists. And of course, with geographic proximity comes a high degree of cultural proximity. Indeed, there are strong cultural bonds between the two nations, centred on the Tamil community in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, who are the ethnic kin of the large Tamil community in India’s deep south.

The fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka were embroiled in a decades long conflict with the central government renders this dimension even more important to the Chinese. More on this later. But suffice to say it is in China’s strategic interest for Sri Lanka to have a strong and stable central government.

A unified and strong Sri Lanka is much more likely to oppose core Indian strategic positions, notably the expansion of Indian influence in the Indian Ocean, and to that end a strong and stable Sri Lanka satisfies China’s strategic priorities.

China cynically exploits tensions in Indo-Sri Lankan relations, notably the majority Sinhalese’s guarded attitude toward India, and Sri Lanka’s natural inclination towards India’s rivals. Note that Sri Lanka has strong ties to Pakistan, India’s nemesis on the subcontinent. Moreover, China seeks to contain Western influence on Sri Lanka, and where possible to drive a wedge between Colombo and Western capitals.

For example, China shields Sri Lanka from Western criticism on human rights issues, focussed on Colombo’s reported mistreatment of the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island. By containing and deterring Western influence in Sri Lanka, China is effectively constructing an outer defensive ring around its core territorial, political and economic interests much further away in the South China Sea area.

From this perspective, China’s outreach to Sri Lanka is an important example of China’s emerging global ambitions and a thinly-veiled desire to project power and influence well beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

The economic dimension   

Interestingly, the issue of human rights is bound up with China’s entry into Sri Lanka’s economy. This entry began in earnest in the immediate aftermath of the successful conclusion of the counter-insurgency campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009. At the time Colombo was chafing under Western criticism of its alleged human rights abuses, notably the reported killing of thousands of Tamil civilians in the northern Jaffna Peninsula in the closing stages of the war.

China, similar to Russia, has a policy of non-intervention in the domestic politics of the countries it tries to cultivate. To that end, the Chinese not only did not care about the possible massacre of Tamil civilians, but in fact they undertook active measures – by way of diplomacy and media propaganda – to protect Sri Lanka from Western criticism.

Since 2010 China has invested significant sums in infrastructure projects in southern Sri Lanka and more recently Beijing has begun to invest in northern Sri Lanka as well, including the Jaffna Peninsula, which was the site of the most ferocious battles of the Sri Lanka Civil War of 1983-2009. For example, a major Chinese engineering company is set to build 40,000 houses in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Whilst successive Sri Lankan governments have welcomed Chinese investment, Beijing’s increasing economic influence on the island nation is not completely free of controversy. The case of the Hambantota Port Development Project is being increasingly cited to highlight the exploitative dimension of China’s investment strategy in Sri Lanka.

Construction of the port began in January 2008 and it is set to become Sri Lanka’s largest port, displacing the Port of Colombo from the top spot. But the project incurred heavy losses and was only kept going by Chinese loans, to the point where Sri Lanka was effectively forced in December 2017 to lease the port for 99 years to the Chinese.

China’s critics and detractors often use this case to demonstrate Beijing’s alleged cynical use of loans and investment funds to advance political and strategic ambitions. They also argue that massive infrastructure projects driven and funded by Chinese loans and associated finance potentially undermine the sovereignty of small states like Sri Lanka and to that end they can be construed as a form of Chinese imperialism.

How stable is Sri Lanka?

At present Sri Lanka is embroiled in a political crisis after President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe only to replace him with hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa. This arbitrary dismissal of a sitting government has been fiercely resisted by the Sri Lankan parliament, to the point where there is political stalemate.

Sri Lanka is currently in the strange position of having two prime ministerial claimants – and potentially two rival governments – and hence on the threshold of deep political turmoil and potential bloodshed. However, despite the deep political uncertainty, the country is relatively calm and smooth administration continues apace.

This speaks to Sri Lanka’s bureaucratic resilience as embodied by the country’s civil service. In the past ten years China has tried hard to cultivate deep links to Sri Lanka’s bureaucracy with a view to investing in the country’s long-term stability. By cultivating allies in the Sri Lankan civil service Beijing believes it can mitigate the instability emanating from Colombo’s volatile politics.

In the final analysis, all the available evidence suggests that China – in keeping with its far-sighted global strategy – is set to deepen its influence in Sri Lanka in the years and decades to come.

Will Vietnam clash with China over the South China Sea?

Bilateral relations between China and Vietnam are not as easy as it may seem. At a first glance, they may be expected to maintain a positive and flawless partnership due to the similar political system. However, a deeper analysis reveals various divergences between the two countries, whose relations are becoming more conflictual with each passing year.

Historical background

China and Vietnam are both the cradle of ancient civilizations, but we can start examining their history since the two states took their current form in the aftermath of WWII.

After more than a century of intromissions and abuses from the part of Western powers and Japan, in 1945 China was devastated by war and politically divided. After a long and destructive civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, which dated back to the 30s and was temporarily suspended to form a unified front against the Japanese invasion, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949 following the victory of the Communists under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong. On their part, the Nationalists took refuge in Taiwan, where they founded a state that still remains de facto separated from the mainland. Still, the PRC was weak and isolated. It had very few allies apart from the Soviet Union; whose assistance was not sufficient to spark a sensible economic growth. Virtually all the other powers, especially the United States, were hostile to China. Moreover, Beijing’s relations with Moscow soon started deteriorating, to the point that the two seemed to be on the brink of war in 1969, when a series of border clashes took place.

Vietnam also had a troubled history following the end of WWII. France, the ancient colonial power, restored its control over the country after the brief Japanese occupation during the conflict. Yet, the Vietnamese soon started an insurgency that ultimately ousted the French in 1954. Following the negotiations that ended the war, Vietnam was divided in two states separated by the 17th parallel: the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the pro-American Republic of Vietnam in the south. But peace did not last long. One year later, a communist armed movement known as Vietcong was already active in the South, where it tried to overthrow the pro-Washington government. As the situation deteriorated, the US gradually escalated its support to the South, to the point of sending combat troops in the mid-60s. But the massive deployment of forces was not enough to defeat the Vietcong supported by the North and its allies, namely China and the USSR.

By the late 60s, then, both China and Vietnam were communist countries hostile to the US. Yet, things would soon change. After secret talks, the Nixon administration announced an unexpected diplomatic opening to the PRC, which culminated in the President’s visit to the country in 1972. This move was mainly driven by a double fold strategic logic. First, the US wanted to exploit the Sino-Soviet Split to its own advantage by putting the two communist states against each other and thus increase pressure on the USSR. Second, the Americans hoped to convince China to reduce its support to North Vietnam and thus facilitate the negotiations to end of the Vietnam War; and effectively a diplomatic settlement in this sense was reached in 1973. In spite of this, two years later the North launched a full-scale invasion of the South with its regular military forces. Strained by the long and costly war, the US decided to abandon Vietnam; which was therefore reunited under the communist regime.

Since then, the relations between Vietnam and China rapidly deteriorated. On spite of the similar political system, their alignment to the USSR and other regimes in South-East Asia led them to a short war in 1979 where both sides claimed victory; but their relations gradually normalized after the conflict. Later, China started implementing economic reforms, which sparked an extraordinary economic boom that still continues today; albeit at a slower pace. Vietnam followed its example, and today it is a fast-growing economy in full modernization. In both cases, this was not accompanied by political opening, and the respective Communist parties continue being the centre of the political system in each country. But during the past decade, bilateral relations have been worsening once again over a series of issues; and the trend seem to consolidate.

Sino-Vietnamese Disputes

The first and most important dispute existing between Vietnam and China is the one over the Paracel and Spratly islands, both located in the South China Sea, or SCS. This is very complex issue that goes way beyond the Sino-Vietnamese relations; as it involves overlapping claims by multiple countries over a strategic area for maritime trade that is also a rich fishing ground and is believed to host hydrocarbon reserves. Here it is sufficient to say that both China and Vietnam advance claims on the two archipelagos; but it is important to note that the Paracel are all occupied by the PRC. In fact, Beijing considers practically the whole of the SCS as its possession according to the “Nine-Dash Line” theory; and has been increasing its military presence in the area by conducting patrols, by expanding existing islands or even by building artificial ones, and by positioning military hardware and bases on their soil. Its activities have raised much concern in Vietnam and other riparian states; but due to their division and to the marked power imbalance in its favour, China has managed to gradually but firmly stabilizing its position in the SCS.

While this may look like a trivial quarrel over very small islets and rocks, in reality it has a major geostrategic significance. Legitimately controlling a piece of land that is recognized as an island (and not a simple rock) allows states to rightfully claim the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic Zone around it. Applied to the SCS archipelagos, this means exerting control over vast maritime spaces that are rich in fish and that may host energy resources. Moreover, the SCS is an essential crossing area for sea trade; therefore, any conflict in the area would seriously disrupt the naval traffic with huge consequences for the global economy. Finally, over time the dispute has taken a symbolic relevance, which exacerbates national animosity and further complicates a peaceful resolution of the issue. Notably, a tense standoff between the two countries took place in 2014 following China’s drilling activities in disputed waters, and in March 2018 Vietnam decided to back down and cancel an important oil project in the area. In this sense, it is also important that Vietnam is modernizing its armed forces; with a particular focus on submarines, fighters and fire-and-forget anti-ship missiles. These are all weapon systems that would be useful in the case of a clash with China in the SCS, and it appears indeed that Vietnam is reshaping its military doctrine in this specific optic.

But there are also other divergences between the two countries. Linked to the SCS dispute, an important issue to consider is China’s economic presence in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese fear that the new economic zones established by their government will end up being dominated by Chinese investors. This has created social tensions that have erupted in violent protests in June this year, with demonstrators openly accusing China and its assertive policy in the SCS. Another problem is the question of waterways; notably the Mekong and the Red River, which both originate in Chinese territory. This has significant implications. First, it means that the PRC can control their flow; with major consequences for Vietnam’s agriculture, which still represents an important part of its economy. Second, and linked with the previous aspect, it means that Vietnam is vulnerable to water pollution generated by Chinese factories located upstream.

Another issue is China’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN; a regional multilateral organization meant to promote dialogue and cooperation of which Vietnam is part. In regards to ASEAN, China has always been careful not to discuss the SCS dispute during the organization’s meetings, where it could be put in minority by the other states. In contrast, by applying an effective “divide & rule” strategy, the PRC has been capable of dealing with the issue directly with each member; where it can negotiate from a position of force. Moreover, China is expanding its influence over all of ASEAN members; but Vietnam is resisting. This does not exclude some positive trends in Sino-Vietnamese relations. Bilateral trade is important: in 2016, the PRC accounted for 13% of Vietnam’s export for a total worth 26.8 billion dollars; and 31% of the goods that Vietnam purchased came from China, meaning 60 billion dollars in value. Also, in spite of the disputes of the previous year, in 2015 the two countries pledged to keep positive relations. Still, it is clear that Vietnam is concerned over China’s growing leverage over other Southeast Asian countries and over its activities in the SCS; and is therefore reacting.

As a matter of fact, Vietnam is building its ties with other countries in a clear attempt to hedge against China. Hanoi tries not to provoke Beijing and officially continues to apply its “Three No Policy”; meaning no alliance, no foreign military bases on its territory and no relations with a country against a third one. Yet, it is now allowing foreign navies to access the strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay for supply and repair; even though it still refuses to lend it to another country. But this example shows that in practice Vietnam is fostering closer political, economic and even military cooperation with other powers like India, Japan, Australia and most importantly the US. Washington is also involved in the SCS dispute, not as a claimant state but as an international security provider, and especially as the guarantor of freedom of navigation. Considering the importance of the SCS for maritime trade, which is essential for the global economy, the US is naturally concerned by China’s actions in the region and is therefore willing to deepen its ties with riparian states to counter its influence. Vietnam is particularly important, due to its geographic location and because it is among the most powerful countries in the area. During an official trip in 2016, former President Barack Obama lifted the embargo on arms sales to Vietnam; and in March 2018 the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited Vietnam. Considering the troubled past between the two countries, these are quite notable developments.

In spite of some positive signs, the trends described above seem to indicate that economic exchanges and diplomatic promises are not enough to prevent tension. Both powers are indeed acting to secure their own national interest, with China reinforcing its positions in the SCS and Vietnam modernizing its military and fostering ties with the US and other countries. In a broader context of US-China competition, it seems that Vietnam will play an increasingly important role; but at the same time, this will put it in a collision course with the PRC, with potentially detrimental consequences for international security and for the regional stability of an area marked by territorial disputes. Only time will tell what will happen, but it seems that Sino-Vietnamese relations will follow a downgrading course in the coming years.

Is China the new tiger of Bangladesh?

Bangladesh and China have maintained good relations for much of history. Today the two countries share a strong strategic relationship, with China playing a vital role mainly in terms of economic and infrastructure development of Bangladesh. However things weren’t so good especially during the time when Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan and the subsequent years until around the mid 1970s.

During Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971, there was a outbreak of complex geopolitical rivalries. India had allied with Bangladesh due to their long-term conflicts with Pakistan, and more so because Bangladesh was actually a part of Pakistan after the end of the British empire since 1947. China had been allied with Pakistan for most of history, and the ties strengthened especially around the time of the Sino-Indian war in 1962. As a result China opposed Bangladesh’s independence and vetoed their UN membership until 1974.[1]

It was only after the military coup in Bangladesh in 1975 that relations between Bangladesh and China started to improve. Prime Minister of Bangladesh since their independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had close ties with India, and only months after the military takeover, China eventually recognised Bangladesh as an independent state as diplomatic relations were secured.[2] This dramatic transformation was fascinating, but it did not come as a surprise as the military rule led by President Ziaur Rahman distanced Bangladesh from India and the Soviets[3], which can possibly be regarded as one of the most significant reasons for their improved relationships. Ziaur Rahman helped restore free market economy in Bangladesh[4] and made a visit to China in 1977 which is regarded as a crucial step in laying groundwork for bilateral cooperation, which was followed by Chinese visits to Bangladesh in the late 1970s. Since then state visits between the two countries have been regular most of which have resulted in positive discussions and signings of agreements on political, economic and security issues.

Current relations

Bangladesh and China share a very strong relationship that ranges from the spheres of the economy, politics, development to defence and security. Today, Bangladesh considers China an “all-weather friend and a trusted ally”[5]. The cooperation dates back to Bangladesh’s  military rule in the mid-70s, however the democratically elected governments since 1991 have been able to keep up the good relations. In a 2010 visit to Bangladesh by then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, he stated that Sino-Bangladesh relations would remain strong regardless of any change in the domestic or international situation.[6] Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the other hand reiterated the importance of the country’s bilateral relations with China considering them a major ally of the highest significance.[7]

Economic ties

One of the most important aspects of the Sino-Bangla bilateral relations is the economic cooperation. China are by far the largest trading partner of Bangladesh with the latest World Bank figures revealing that Chinese exports to Bangladesh to be worth over US$ 10 billion (in 2015)[8]. On the other hand Bangladesh is China’s third largest trade partner. Majority of Bangladesh’s imports from china consist of raw materials for clothing and textile.[9] However the balance of trade between the countries is significant with Bangladesh having a deficit of approximately US$ 9 billion.[10] Reduction in trade deficit has been a primary concern for Bangladesh over the years, and following negotiations China agreed to provide duty-free access to around 5000 Bangladeshi products to the Chinese market under the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA) which has so far resulted in a slight decline in the ratio of trade deficit[11].

Possible Free Trade Agreement?

Talks have been in progress for several years about Bangladesh seeking a zero-tariff access of 99 percent items including Ready-made garments products in order to improve balance of trade. China’s meteoric rise in becoming the 2nd largest economy in the world only behind the United States by toppling Japan was possible largely due to its diversified economy, while having 14 FTA’s with developed as well as developing countries around the globe.

However there are some challenges of the FTA, mainly with regard to China’s ‘Made in China 2015’ industrial policy plan. There are significant restrictions on investing in China, and also preference is given to state-owned enterprises that control 38 percent of industrial assets in China, skewing competition in the market in favour of those.[12] Also another concern for foreign investors is the ‘Chinese ways’ of implementation and enforcement of laws and regulations which tend to be ambiguous and lax.

A major geopolitical challenge concerning the FTA would come from the United States and India, especially with India also having a strong alliance with Bangladesh. Chances are that India may take the Chinese assertion in its backyard as a means of increasing influence in India’s sphere, while the United States may consider an FTA as a geostrategic obstacle in containing China at the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region. However, if Bangladesh wants to achieve a fairly unrestricted access to Chinese markets it needs to keep pushing further on the negotiation table, while asserting to their other major allies, India and the United States that the actions are for their own best interests mainly in terms of economic development.

Will the US-China trade war have an impact on Bangladesh?

The recent trade war instigated by Donald Trump with his protectionist approach, with Chinese retaliations following by, has had impacts in the Bangladeshi economy. There has been a rise in steel prices (mainly rods) in the domestic market threatening both the major public infrastructure projects and the real estate market due to the US imposing tariff on US$ 34 billion worth of exports from China, while the latter imposed tariff on American cotton, and while China plan on importing cotton from India, the prices had already increased by 10-12 percent. It must be noted that more than half of Bangladesh’s cotton imports are from India  [13]. Soaring cotton prices would significantly hurt Bangladesh’s economy as they would affect the readymade garment sector.

Despite having strong economic ties there have been disagreements; a significant one is Bangladesh’s refusal of agreeing to China’s terms and conditions for the construction of the Sonadia deep-sea port in 2014.

Defence and Security Cooperation

Defence cooperation has been one of the major strengths in the bilateral relations between the two countries. China happens to be the only country that Bangladesh has signed a defence agreement with, which was done in 2002. Since then China had been the largest supplier of weapons and military equipment to Bangladesh, with latter being the 2nd largest recipient of Chinese arms in the world between 2011 and 2015[14]. Between 2013 and 2017 China has provided Bangladesh with 71 percent of all their arms purchases[15]. Bangladesh also recently purchased their first submarines to add to their naval fleet causing concerns in India. The Bangladeshi armed forces have acquired large numbers of tanks, large-calibre artillery, armoured personnel carriers, small arms and light weapons (SALW) as Chinese arms are the Bangladeshi Army’s weapon of choice while the Navy use Chinese frigates with missiles, missile boats, torpedo boats among others. China have also been supplying fighter jets and training aircraft to the Bangladeshi Air Force since 1977[16].

Very recently China and Bangladesh made crucial developments in security cooperation. The bilateral relations between the two countries have been elevated to ”Strategic Partnership of Cooperation”. The deal is aimed at intelligence sharing and counterterrorism activities, although other important matters such as cybercrime, militancy, transnational crimes, narcotics, fire service, and visa issues were also discussed during the signing of this major agreement[17].

Development cooperation/ Infrastructure development

Development cooperation is an integral part of the bilateral relations between China and Bangladesh. China has played a crucial role in the infrastructure development of Bangladesh over the years. It has assisted Bangladesh in building bridges, roads and railway tracks and power plants. The development assistance from China to Bangladesh and other developing countries mostly come as LOC’s. During a recent Bangladesh visit in 2016, President Xi Jingping promised US$24 billion in economic assistance to Bangladesh mainly as LOCs related to 24 projects[18].

China assisted Bangladesh in the construction of six bridges commonly known as the ““China- Bangladesh Friendship” bridges[19]. China also helped Bangladesh in constructing the Barapukuria coal-fired power plant located in Dinajpur in the North West of Bangladesh and was commissioned in 2006[20]. During Jingpin’s visit to Bangladesh in 2016, the countries signed agreements for two 1320 MW coal-fired power plants- one Payra, Patuakhali and the other in Banshkhali, Chittagong- making China the largest energy partner to Bangladesh overtaking India[21].

China has also provided economic assistance to Bangladesh in terms of free aid and token gifts. Two major agreements were signed in 2010 for establishing a fertiliser factory, and telecommunications network systems in Bangladesh- that were to be set up with a US$ 770 million LOC from China with a two percent interest rate payable within 20 years[22]. There had been discussions for several years on potential road and railway connections linking Chittagong with Kunming that would boost the economies of both the countries however that has not materialised as of yet[23]. Currently China is developing a 750-acre industrial park in Chittagong which will take five years to become fully operational and it will largely be used by Chinese manufacturing firms[24].

Conclusion

The good relations shared between China and Bangladesh have always been of mutual interests and both countries benefit from that. Although the growing relations between China and Bangladesh raise geopolitical tensions in the South Asia region and the Bay of Bengal, there should not be much doubt that China’s primary interest lies in the booming economy of Bangladesh, which has been ever so dependent on their bilateral trade relations. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has recently said that there is nothing to be concerned about for India while not explicitly mentioning China or any other country, and that Bangladesh need funds for the sole purpose of development and that she would welcome any country that is willing to invest in the country; she also urged India to maintain cordial relationship with all its neighbours[25]. Keeping close ties with Bangladesh will no doubt be hugely beneficial for China as the demand for oil and gas have risen largely owing to its growing industries, and having a strong geopolitical presence in the Bay of Bengal and the littoral countries could give them an advantage in terms of accessibility to various ports. On the other hand Bangladesh can only benefit from the cooperation with a major economic power as it has done so in terms of their diplomatic, economic and security affairs and would be keenly anticipating further developments in their bilateral cooperation.

[1] http://countrystudies.us/bangladesh/108.htm

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320546820_SINO-BANGLADESH_RELATIONS_AN_APPRAISAL

[3] http://countrystudies.us/bangladesh/108.htm

[4] http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTPREMNET/Resources/489960-1338997241035/Growth_Commission_Working_Paper_22_Economic_Reforms_Growth_Governance_Political_Economy_Aspects_Bangladesh_Development_Surprise.pdf

[5] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/41935-decoding-china-bangladesh-relationship/

[6] Xinhua, 16 June 2010.

[7] “China pledges free market access”, The Daily Star, 19 March 2010.

[8] https://wits.worldbank.org/CountrySnapshot/en/BGD

[9] https://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/politics/expanding-the-bangladesh-china-trade-frontier-1296583

[10] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/41935-decoding-china-bangladesh-relationship/

[11] https://www.thedailystar.net/op-ed/politics/expanding-the-bangladesh-china-trade-frontier-1296583

[12] https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/2018/05/18/free-trade-agreement-with-china-a-necessity

[13] https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/more-just-facts/what-does-the-us-china-trade-war-mean-bangladesh-1604986

[14] https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-chinas-submarine-deal-with-bangladesh-matters/

[15] https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-03/fssipri_at2017_0.pdf

[16] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320546820_SINO-BANGLADESH_RELATIONS_AN_APPRAISAL

[17] https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2018/10/26/bangladesh-china-sign-3-agreements-on-security-cooperation

[18] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/41935-decoding-china-bangladesh-relationship/

[19] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/320546820_SINO-BANGLADESH_RELATIONS_AN_APPRAISAL

[20] https://china.aiddata.org/projects/33957

[21] https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/2016/10/18/china-becomes-bangladeshs-largest-energy-partner/

[22] Rezaul Karim Byron, “$ 770 million Chinese loan tied with conditions”, The Daily Star, 28 September 2010.

[23] https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-259521

[24] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bagnladesh-china/china-to-develop-bangladesh-industrial-zone-as-part-of-south-asia-push-idUSKCN1HB1M2

[25] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-need-not-worry-about-bangladesh-china-ties-sheikh-hasina/articleshow/63037906.cms

The Geopolitics of the Bay of Bengal

The Bay of Bengal is located in the North-East region of the Indian Ocean, and is bounded by Bangladesh to the North, Myanmar and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India to the East, India and Sri Lanka to the West. Some of the major sea ports in the Bay of Bengal include Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam in India and the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh making the region (of the Bay) a crucial economic hub. With an area of 2,173,000 square kilometres, the Bay of Bengal is the largest Bay in the world which is at the forefront of Asia’s experience of climate change[1]. Over the years the significance Bay of Bengal have been on the rise largely owing to the rapid economic growth of the littoral nations and the major powers involved in the bay.[2]

Brief History

Throughout the medieval, early modern and modern periods of world history from the indigenous city-states as well as empires, later to the British Empire the Bay of Bengal had been a singular civilisation united by a rice culture and common coastline that kept bringing trade and migrants along its shores.[3] Historically the Bay of Bengal has played a significant role of a connector- where trade, commerce and culture were intertwined for centuries. However in the early 20th century the British Empire used the Bay of Bengal for trade and other related activities, causing a significant increase in shipping between British India and British Burma. Yangon (Burmese Capital) was fascinatingly turned into one of the busiest ports in the world for migrant arrivals alongside the likes of New York; with majority of the flow from India towards Burma (now known as Myanmar)[4]. Strong ties between Burma and India developed as a direct consequence of the migration, which followed a downward curve in the years following the partition of India in 1947 and the Burmese independence in 1948 from Japanese occupation since world war II.[5]

Economic and Security issues

Bay of Bengal is rapidly becoming an area of key economic and strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. A crucial geopolitical development was the creation of a regional body- the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) between Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand- which seeks to promote regional cooperation and engagement in the area particularly between the two major geopolitical blocs of the region- the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However BIMSTEC’s focus is solely economic with their main objective being supporting free trade hence it does little to provide any support in terms of maritime security issues that have particularly grown in recent years with respect to Chinese and Indian interests.[6]

Crucial geopolitical factors concerning the Bay of Bengal

China’s economic and security interests over the past few decades have resulted in greater Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. China has been successful in developing strong economic relations with major Bay of Bengal countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar primarily through infrastructure development projects that include pipelines, roads and railway, port-development and power-plant construction.[7] Key strategists from India expressed concerns over the rising Chinese influence in the outposts of the Indian Ocean which they fear could enable China to turn them into military bases encircling India.[8] Although it is argued that China’s interests are more economic in terms of ease of connecting to the other parts of the world on their West, it has not stopped India from taking precautionary steps by making rapid developments in modernising their naval capabilities as well as developing multilateral and bilateral naval ties with key players of the Bay of Bengal.

China-India relations in the Bay of Bengal

China and India are playing a strategic and economic tug-of-war in Myanmar among other littoral nations along the Bay of Bengal. China has recently assisted in building key ports in Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka and according to recent reports it is funding the development of the Chittagong port of Bangladesh, while having reached an multi-billion dollar agreement to build a major deep sea port in Kyaukpyu, Myanmar on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.[9] China already have a significant presence in Myanmar with the gas pipeline connecting China’s Yunnan Province with Myanmar’s major Rakhine state already in operation and a parallel oil pipeline that is supposed to soon begin operations.[10] Since the launch of India’s Look East Policy in the 1990s it has strengthened its political, economic and strategic ties with South East Asian countries and beyond [11], with more actions being considered in order to have leverage over China. It is safe to say that while India had other priorities such as the inward economic orientation and preoccupation with troubled land borders mainly in the North and the North West, it was the growing influence of China’s maritime influence that prompted India’s strategic interests in the Bay of Bengal through its Look East Policy.[12] India and China are locked into this strategic competition for naval dominance as well as influence in the Indian Ocean’s littoral states and it can be argued that China might just have the edge due to its closer connections to some of the major littorals- i.e. Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The island nation of Sri Lanka also has strong economic ties with both India and China, with a growing regional and security cooperation with the former. However the recent takeover of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port by China has had significant impacts- one of which is lessening the country’s debts to China, who has made a lot of investments in Sri Lanka over the years.[13]

Maritime disputes


Bangladesh, India and Myanmar have had their fair share of disputes regarding maritime territories. One of the most recent disputes was between Bangladesh and Myanmar as tensions were building when South Korea’s Daewoo began natural gas exploration for Myanmar in what Bangladesh claimed was their waters, prompting Bangladesh to submit a continental shelf claim to the United Nations’ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Largely owing to Myanmar’s conflicting claims, the events led up to the mobilisation of naval forces along the disputed area although eventually a conflict was avoided.[14] The disputes were largely settled by the International Tribunal for the Land of the Seas (ITLOS) in 2012 and 2014 respectively.[15]

Myanmar relations with the littoral nations

Myanmar is regarded as a key player in the strategic equation along the Northern region of the Bay of Bengal that is fiercely contested by China and India. Myanmar have seen growing economic ties with India since the World War II while China have also been developing ties through various means primarily comprising infrastructure support.  Myanmar signed its first bilateral trade deal with India in 1970 and has been gradually increasing in volume since. According to some of the latest figures available, Indian exports to Myanmar totalled US$1.1 billion (1111.19 million) in the FY 2016-17 while imports were worth US$ 1 billion (1067.25 million), making it the fifth largest trade partner with Myanmar, despite trade said to remain below potential.[16] On the other hand Bangladesh and Myanmar established diplomatic ties in 1972 which resulted in progressing bilateral relations in the subsequent years. However in the mid-seventies as President Thein Sein’s government transformed Myanmar’s military government into a quasi-civilian government the bilateral relations never realised their full potential.[17] The end of their military rule in 2011 brought about a new glimmer of hope, however the recent Rohingya crisis has hindered any progress as Bangladesh are hosting a million refugees and have constantly failed in their repatriation due to the Bangladeshi government failing to have reached an agreement with the Myanmar government led by Aung (San) Suu Kyi.

Security/strategic issues

China are the largest trade partners to both Bangladesh and Myanmar and is also the biggest supplier of conventional arms to both the countries. Bangladesh had recently purchased two submarines from China to bolster its naval forces causing tensions in India, with Indian analysts claiming it “greatly enhances the mistrust between Delhi and Dhaka”.[18]

While most of the issues were regarding the littoral nations and China, major actors such as Japan, alongside China have significant interest in the Bay of Bengal, as they access it through the Malacca Strait for the purpose of trade in goods and energy.[19] One of the most significant reasons for China’s growing presence is to find reliable oil supplies and secure unencumbered SLOCs.

India on the other hand had been working towards a “Bay of Bengal community” envisaging greater security cooperation with the littoral nations.[20] It is obvious that other actors play a significant role however the Bay of Bengal does have significance for India’s own best interests as well as data from 2013 reveals that 95 percent of India’s foreign trade by volume and 75 percent by value were conducted by sea.[21] The economic growth also led to India’s expansion of its Navy as it claims is for the safety of the Ocean’s SLOCs regarding it a critical move to support and protect for themselves and for the global community.[22]

Other challenges to stability

There is little doubt about the significance of the Bay of Bengal to the Asia’s rising powers however there are some challenges especially for its low-lying littorals. Currently, the Bay is being reshaped by population growth, climate change, overexploitation of fisheries, degradation of critical habitats, pollution, and deteriorating water quality and it is getting increasingly clear that multilateral cooperation is vital for the littorals, especially important is that they keep aside their political differences to work together while maintaining a healthy competition. Currently there is already an initiative known as the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) Project designed to improve the lives of the coastal populations through improved regional management of the Bay of Bengal environment and its fisheries, and countries that are involved are as follows- Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.[23]

What’s Next

The geopolitics surrounding the Bay of Bengal is probably one of the most complex issues in the continent if not the world, with the region comprising a diverse range of social, economic and political factors. However there is little doubt that the key actors involved with the Bay of Bengal all have a crucial role to play in the progress of the region and for themselves in relation to prospects of regional strategic security and economic cooperation and transformation of the (developing) nations.

 

[1] http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/research/2014/01/27/the-bay-of-bengal-in-global-history/

[2] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[3] https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/critical-bay-bengal

[4] King’s College Discussion. “The Bay of Bengal: Rise and Decline of a South Asian Region”. YouTube.

[5] https://www.mea.gov.in/images/pdf/Indian-Migrants-Myanmar.pdf ; https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33973982

[6] https://southasianvoices.org/bay-of-bengal-indias-centerpiece-springboard/

[7] https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRP-2012-U-002319-Final.pdf

[8] https://www.cna.org/CNA_files/PDF/IRP-2012-U-002319-Final.pdf

[9] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/china-myanmar-ink-deal-for-port-on-bay-of-bengal-third-in-india-s-vicinity/story-Lbm4IwOMuqrNvXGv4ewuYJ.html ; https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/china-to-build-port-in-myanmar-third-in-indias-neighbourhood-1944916

[10]

[11] http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/indien/11043.pdf

[12] https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/chinese-takeaway-bengals-bay/

[13] https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/navy-league/2018/04/09/sri-lanka-cedes-major-port-to-china-fueling-tensions/

[14] https://amti.csis.org/the-bangladeshmyanmar-maritime-dispute-lessons-for-peaceful-resolution/

[15] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RskGT2pUiIY

[16] https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/MYANMAR_August_2017_new.pdf

[17] https://www.myanmarisis.org/publication_pdf/final-version-myanmar-bangladesh-relations-mmedits-ah2-1wpFhW.pdf

[18] https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/why-chinas-submarine-deal-with-bangladesh-matters/

[19] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[20] https://www.deccanherald.com/national/india-wants-bay-bengal-be-688774.html

[21] Hughes, L., 2014. Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 4 – India’s Maritime Strategy. Future Directions International. [online] January 30 2014. Available at: http://www.futuredirections.org. au/publications/indian-ocean/1516-examining-the-sino-indian- maritime-competition-part-4-india-s-maritime-strategy.html

[22] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

[23] https://hrcak.srce.hr/135023

The Weaponisation of Space

Space: The final frontier, where no war has been fought before. In the past few years, both states and firms have shown a renewed interest for space exploration. New ambitious missions were launched for scientific and commercial purposes, with some aiming even at landing a manned mission on Mars. But will space also become the final frontier of warfare?

Space: Militarization & Weaponization

When examining the use of space for war-related activities, an important distinction must be made between the militarization and the weaponization of space.

The term “militarization” refers to the use of space for military purposes; be it reconnaissance, targeting, communication, direct attack or anything else. In this sense, space was militarized decades ago. The armed forces of advanced countries, as the United States and its competitors like Russia and China, have deployed satellites in orbit to perform such tasks and support their combat operations on Earth.

On its part, the term “weaponization” has a more specific meaning: it indicates the deployment of weapons in space, and sometimes also that of weapons capable of striking space-based assets. Space could soon be weaponized, and in some sense it already is. But to understand the scope of this trend, it is first necessary to consider the legal framework of space use.

The legal framework

Due to its nature, space is part of the global commons. It is therefore a domain that anyone can freely access and exploit for various activities. This conception underlies the legal framework on the use of space, and this is why there have been efforts to prevent its militarization and most of all its weaponization. However, important juridical vacuums persist, and they leave room for exploiting space for military purposes.

The most important treaty in this sense is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which a total of 107 countries have adhered; including the US, Russia and China. Its aim is to regulate activity in space and in particular to avoid an arms race. It states that “The exploration and use of outer space […] shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interest of all countries”, that space “shall be free for exploration and use by all States”, and establishes that it “is not subject to national appropriation”. But its most important provision appears in Article IV, which reads: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner”. It also establishes the peaceful use of the Moon and other celestial bodies.

The treaty therefore explicitly forbids the deployment of weapons of mass destruction (or WMDs) in space. But in spite of the will to promote the peaceful use of this domain, there is no clear prohibition on the placement of non-WMD weapons in space. In this sense, an important provision concerning Anti-Ballistic Missiles system (or ABMs) existed in the 1972 ABM Treaty between the US and the USSR (later Russia). The treaty banned the deployment of similar systems in space, but when Washington abandoned the Treaty in 2002 the prohibition became practically void.

Another important concept is the one of non-interference, which is included in several treaties and prevents states from conducting actions that may hinder the verification of compliance with the norms on the use of outer space.

Then, there are a number of Resolutions of the UN General Assembly that call for avoiding the military use of space and for ensuring that only peaceful activities take place there; but for their very nature they are not binding. Still, it may be argued that the existing juridical body and the expressed desires of states to grant that space remains a domain to be used only for peaceful purposes are already sufficient to create a consuetudinary and possibly binding norm against the weaponization of space; but this remains subject to interpretation and, most importantly, the behaviour of states in recent years is going in the opposite direction, thus weakening the solidity and even the existence of this norm.

Types of space weapons

The exact definition of “space weapon” is not clear-cut and it can include a wide array of systems, most of whom remain theoretical or experimental concepts. In general, they can be divided into two broad categories: space-based and Earth-based assets.

Regarding the first, these are all kind of weapons deployed in orbit or on a celestial body, but the latter are more complicated to operate and would be a clear contravention to the Outer Space Treaty. So, satellites would be the most likely option. They could use jamming equipment to interfere with other satellites or use destructive weaponry, which can be either direct-energy weapons like lasers or kinetic-energy systems. It may even be possible to use “suicide satellites” designed to crash themselves against other satellites. Of all these, the most probable are satellites equipped with jammers, as other solutions would be technically more challenging to build and operate. Still, such satellites could affect the nuclear equilibrium: if the satellites used to detect the launch of ballistic missiles could effectively be jammed, then the immediate retaliation capabilities upon which nuclear deterrence is based could be undermined. So, similar jamming satellites would be a contravention to the non-interference norms meant to ensure the verifiability in nuclear matters.

But in theory satellites could also be used to strike targets on Earth. This can be done with lasers, or via kinetic bombardment. The latter refers to the use of satellites to launch projectiles on the planet’s surface: even without any kind of warhead, the sheer speed at which they would hit the target would be sufficient to cause damages comparable to those of a tactical nuclear bomb. As such, they could be considered a form of WMD and be therefore illegal.

Lasers could also be used to destroy targets in in the atmosphere, notably ballistic missiles. Since the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, Russia has firmly opposed America’s ABM initiatives also out of concern that space-based systems could be deployed.

Then, there are Earth-based systems. The most important ones are anti-satellite systems, or ASAT. Various solutions are possible. A first and most common kind are missiles, fired either from the ground or from airplanes. The former type could also include ABM systems, since they could also be used for targeting satellites, and this has caused concern. Then there can be ASAT lasers, that have been tested by both the US and Russia. In addition, Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) could be considered as space-related weapons as well. These are essentially ballistic missiles capable of travelling at speed of five times that of sound or more, and for their characteristics they blur the distinction between the air and space domains.

The actual deployment of most of these systems remain to be seen, as they imply considerable technical difficulties and high costs. But there is one exception: ASAT missiles. These are already a reality, as various powers have successfully tested them; and this is why space can be considered already weaponized to some extent.

Security dynamics in space

In spite of calls for the peaceful use of outer space, in practice this domain is already militarized and is central for the national security of many countries, first of all the US; which has deployed numerous satellites in space that are employed for intelligence gathering, targeting and navigation (via the GPS) and communications. Space is therefore vital for the ability of the US armed forces to operate effectively, and the Pentagon is fully aware of that; but so are America’s competitors.

In spite of their military power, Russia and China still cannot compete with the US on an equal basis in military terms. Therefore, they are adopting an indirect approach which aims at America’s weak spot: the satellites, which are essential for US military operations. This is why they, but the US as well, are so engaged in developing ASAT weapons. The first successful test of a Chinese ASAT missile dates back to 2007. This test has been largely considered as signal to the US, who in turn experimented a similar weapon shortly after. On its part, Russia tested its Nudol system several times, and there have been speculations that a missile spotted on a MiG-31 fighter in September this year could be an ASAT weapon.

Another driver in Russia’s and China’s quest for ASAT weapons is America’s Conventional Prompt Global Strike initiative, or CPGS. The aim of this program, that was revived since 2008 to counter the Anti-Access / Area Denial strategies of Moscow and Beijing, is to enable the US military to strike a target located anywhere in the world with conventional weapons in no more than one hour. Various systems have been proposed to satisfy the CPGS’ requirements, including some that are linked with space: among them, the most important are hypersonic missiles, as they require satellites for targeting and guidance. Russia and China started developing ASAT weapons also to counter this threat. But satellites could also be used as early-warning systems to detect incoming hypersonic missiles: considering that all three powers are testing such vectors, it is clear why they all invest so much in deploying satellites and in being able to take down those of their adversaries.

This also explain the calls from Moscow and Beijing for a treaty to ban space weapons, known as PAROS; an acronym for Prevention on an Arms Race in Outer Space. By now, Washington has constantly declined to adhere to this project; but the actual goodwill of Russia and China is debated, with some suggesting that their offers are not driven by the actual desire to avoid a space arms race, but by the willingness to conduct it on their own terms. Here, the distinction between “weaponizing” space and “deploying weapons in space” is important: Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov talked about forbidding the latter, which would make space-based systems illegal but would allow ASAT weapons like those that Russia and China are developing.

Beside ASAT systems, there are also other activities that the three powers are conducting in space which may have a military connotation. In cooperation with SpaceX, the US Air Force has already performed several missions using the X-37B space plane, which was used to carry classified payloads in orbit. This raised rumours that a new weapon could be involved, but it is uncertain and some analysts reject this hypothesis. Again, earlier this year, the strange behaviour of a Russian satellite created concerns among some US officials that it could be a space weapon, possibly an ASAT system. Similar worries exist over Chinese activities in space. All this may indicate that space weaponization is moving to its definitive form, namely that of having proper weapons into space.

Finally, while the US, Russia and China are surely the main actors in the weaponization of space, they are not the only ones. Beside them, Japan, India and Israel are testing ASAT or ABM systems as well. Along with Germany, Italy and France, they also have their own reconnaissance satellites. In addition, North Korea has recently launched a satellite, and Iran is working on ASAT systems.

The final frontier of warfare?

As seen, space is already militarized, and new systems developed by major powers are leading to its weaponization. It is to be expected that this trend will continue, and it is practically certain that in case of conflict space will turn into a battleground, with space assets being targeted and possibly becoming attack vectors themselves. Space is the final frontier, also for warfare.

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