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Russia's Massive Military Buildup Abroad: Should NATO Worry?

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As tensions between the United States and Russia continue to grow, Moscow is embarking on a massive military buildup in the country of Belarus.

Speaking to Russian media outlets on Wednesday, Belarusian Defense Minister Gen. Lt. Andrey Ravkov said that four Russian-built S-300 air defense systems would be sent to his country by the end of this year, and there were ongoing talks over Russia deploying its most advanced S-400 air defense systems.

"In the framework of creating a joint regional system of missile defense , four divisions and command post of S-300PS missile defense systems will enter service at military units of Air Force’s Anti-Aircraft Missile Troops and Air Defense Troops stationed in the Hrodna, Brest and Vitebsk Regions," Ravkov told TASS media agency.

He went on to say that Russia and Belarus are continuing to discuss arrangements for delivering the S-400 system, but that “it is yet premature to talk about concrete dates."

Ravkov also discussed Russia building an air force base in his country during the interview, stating “The timeframe and place of stationing a Russian aviation base on the territory of Belarus is currently in the political dimension of consideration."

He added: “It is too early to talk about transfer of Su-27 aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters from the Russian Federation. However, our defense ministry is ready to undertake all necessary measures to practically fulfill this."

In March 2014, Russia announced it was deploying 6 Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and three transport planes to Bobruisk airfield near Belarus’ border with Poland. The move came in response to NATO sending 12 F-16s to Poland following the Crimea crisis.

Also last year, Lt. Gen. Viktor Bondarev, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s Air Force, had said that Moscow will establish an air base in Belarus’ Babruysk in 2016. "The Russian Air Forces air base in Belarus will be created in 2016. Su-27 fighter jets will be based there," Bondarev said in October 2014.

In a meeting with Ravkov last December, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was increasing the number of aircraft it initially will deploy to the new air base when it is complete.

In October, Defense Minister Shoigu promised that Russia would continue expanding its foreign military bases in other neighboring countries as well, stating: “We keep developing our bases abroad: in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia. We are developing them rather actively.”

During the TASS interview on Wednesday, Ravkov attributed Russia’s military buildup in his country to the growing NATO presence along Belarus’ borders. "Along with strengthening the aviation component of NATO member-countries in the Baltics States and Poland that perform the functions of hoarding the airspace, the Alliance is gradually concentrating additional military contingents equipped with heavy weaponry near the Belarusian borders," he said.

Belarus already operates the Russian-built MiG-29 Fulcrums. In 2013, Belarus announced it was again upgrading its MiG-29s, giving them “additional glass cockpit avionics, new radar with ground scanning capability and a sat-nav system, based either on GLONASS or GPS,” according to The Aviationist.

The Belarus Air Force also operates the Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-25.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Dmitriy Pichugin

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

China's Military Practices Invading Taiwan

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China’s military is practicing invading Taiwan, IHS Jane’s notes.

In a new analysis by Richard Fisher and James Hardy, IHS Jane’s reports that “A series of Chinese military exercises between late May and early June showcased the ability of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to project land, air, and naval power into the area around Taiwan.”

The exercises demonstrated the People's Liberation Army’s plan to use civilian ships during emergencies to help boost its forces.

“To compensate for the relatively small size of its formal naval amphibious transport fleet the PLA has co-funded construction of a large number of ferries used by civilian companies. They will be made available to the PLA during emergencies and are a frequent element in civil-military transport exercises,” Fisher and Hardy write.

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Included in these drills, for example, was a 20,000-ton roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ferry that was assigned to the Transportation Department of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). During the drill, the ferry helped transport troops and trucks from the Bohai Sea to the South China Sea.

Fisher and Hardy, citing an Asian government source, assess that in the event of an invasion, a combined military and civilian effort could transport between 8-12 PLA divisions to Taiwan.

The National Interest had previously reported on the drills, noting last week that China announced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) were conducting a joint exercise near the Bashi Channel. The channel sits near islands owned by the Philippines and Taiwan, and the drills were conducted near both of those countries’ Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ).

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TNI noted at that time that as part of that exercise, the PLAAF had sent its most advanced H-6K bomber near the channel, along with other aircraft like the H-6G and J-11 air superiority fighter. TNI also wrote at the time:

The apparently now routine joint air-sea exercises China is conducting in the area are likely to greatly unnerve Taiwan. One perceived weakness of China’s military forces are their lack of training, particularly joint training among China’s different military services.

An assault on Taiwan would require the seamless integration of Chinese naval and air assets along with amphibious forces. Thus the drills, which China’s defense ministry claimed were not directed at any specific country, will enhance the PLA’s preparedness for an attack on Taiwan.

The drills appear to be aimed squarely at developing these capabilities. Indeed, besides the civilian ships used in the exercises, IHS Jane’s notes that a naval formation consisting of the Type 052B destroyer, a Type 054A frigate, and a Type 904 underway replenishment ship also took part in the drills. The Type 052B destroyer, in particular, would be used as part of an invading force to help provide air defense for the amphibious forces.

China's sole aircraft carrier is also participating in a drill this week. It is unclear if that exercise is related to the ones simulating an attack on Taiwan.

The PLA drills coincided with Tsai Ing-wen, the head of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), visiting the United States. The DPP has traditionally been the Taiwanese political party that is most opposed to the People’s Republic of China, as well as reunifying Taiwan with mainland China. It has also traditionally opposed the “one China principle” as the starting ground for diplomatic relations with mainland China.

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Tsai is likely to run for president in Taiwan’s 2016 elections. The DPP scored a landslide victory in Taiwan’s local elections last year, leading many to believe it could take the presidency in 2016. This would likely great irk the PRC and its president, Xi Jinping.

This isn’t the first time the Chinese military has simulated an invasion on Taiwan. As The Washington Times reported back in the fall of 2013, “More than 20,000 Chinese soldiers, sailors and airmen carried out a boisterous joint-operation exercise this month, with Taiwan as the apparent simulated target of a Normandy-style invasion.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Flickr/olemiswebs/CC by-nc-sa 2.0

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

The New 'Battleship': Are Submarines Set to Become Obsolete?

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Much has been made of the recent release of the report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) into the emerging era of undersea warfare. The wide coverage that the report received in Australia (see here, for example) focused largely on the assertion that “submersibles drones would make submarines obsolete.”

The report’s author Bryan Clark posits that “technological advancements, many of them driven by rapid increases in computer processing power, will likely spur a new round of dramatic changes in undersea warfare.” Those changes are expected to be new capabilities to find submarines, improvements to submarines that will improve stealth and submerged endurance, and new underwater weapon, sensor and communication systems.

Clark doesn’t advance a position as to whether these technological developments will fundamentally affect the current submarine/anti-submarine warfare (ASW) balance. He prefers to make the case for the U.S. to continue research and engagement in this important area in order that the United States retains its technological and operational lead.

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This report raises some interesting issues for Australia, for instance, how do we address the more than 300 submarines that are expected to be in the Indo-Pacific by 2030? How will maritime operations be affected into the future, and what are the implications for SEA 1000? In February 2000, at a conference on maritime warfare in the 21st century, I considered a number of the points now being made by CSBA; namely that advances in processing technology would allow the construction of large virtual arrays and hence improve submarine detection, and that the move to low frequency multi-static sonar would force the submarine to adopt noise-cancellation on a ‘pulse-by-pulse’ basis.

Advances in submarine detection have the potential to fundamentally change the way ASW is undertaken. The construction of large virtual arrays, coupled with the move to bi-static low frequency sonar, will dramatically increase sonar array sensitivity and submarine detection ranges. This will serve to inhibit a submarine aiming to engage a surface task group, and either push torpedo engagement ranges further out or force a reversion to long-range anti-ship missile engagements. Either way, the submarine engagement dynamic will have changed.

A warship operating alone won’t be capable of achieving the same extended submarine detection range. An independent ship will have to rely on its own systems as there will be no cooperative platform with which to form the virtual array; although low frequency active sonar will provide some improvement in detection capabilities. The changed dynamic in task group engagements will therefore force submarines to become more ‘opportunistic’ with a greater focus on the interdiction of naval ships acting alone or on merchant shipping. The latter is a serious operational consideration for Australia.

However, one serious problem will remain, made worse by the increased array sensitivity and increased detection ranges, and requiring significant research effort in the coming years: identification. How will it be possible to positively identify a submerged submarine in Indo-Pacific waters prior to engagement, or to avoid engagement? How will it be possible to make the definitive call that a sonar contact is Indonesian, Singaporean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Thai or some passing Frenchman? Some sonar techniques will assist—as will water space management arrangements to exchange submarine positional information between close allies—but identification will remain elusive. Declaration of exclusion zones will not solve the problem.

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And what will be the impact on SEA 1000? Submarines will continue to have a valid role in the future Australian force structure due to their ongoing ability to exert psychological pressure on an adversary, and for anti-submarine operations, intelligence gathering, interdiction of shipping, and a range of other covert operations. Continuing relevance will however come at a cost, with improved stealth becoming increasingly expensive. As highlighted in the CSBA report, improved through-water communications will also see submerged submarines included in battlespace-wide area networks, and using a variety of underwater autonomous vehicles and sensors. The SEA 1000 solution needs to be cognizant of these trends in underwater warfare if the preferred solution is to be relevant long term.

Submarines and ASW are of high strategic importance to Australia. Investment in networked ASW—both for the detection of adversary submarines and the broader use of our own submerged submarines—is warranted to address strategic risks. Significant research into techniques for the identification of submerged platforms is also required. We cannot and should not just wait for the U.S. to develop these techniques and expect to simply leverage off their investment.

Australia has a vibrant submarine and sonar processing industry—and success in the areas outlined above could be a game changer for Australia in both the operational and industrial sense. We need to be on the front foot for these technical challenges—even it has taken us 15 years to reach this point.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

China Plays the Victim in the South China Sea

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The strategic discussion between the U.S. and China can’t be called a dialogue of the deaf. The talk is loud and each side hears the other.

Yet a lot of mishearing is happening. Perhaps the metaphor should be a security debate shaking on a sea of scrambled semiotics.

Everybody purports to be talking about the same thing when really they’re talking about different things. Same subject, divergent understandings.

Take the subject du jour: the South China Sea. The issue under discussion should be clear and well understood. This is about rocks and reefs, contested ownership and rights in some vital maritime territory. When each side talks about the South China Sea, however, they’re also talking about lots of things that look nothing like rocks and reefs; scrambled semiotics in spades.

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The big shared understanding is that the South China Sea is one element in a much larger process—the shift in Asia’s balance of power.

Beyond that, though, the South China Sea becomes a subject of conflicting and confusing signs and symbols and understandings.

For everyone else, China’s rampant terraforming in the South China Sea shows the raw power of Asia’s biggest player, grabbing what it wants on the international commons. China, though, sees it as a domestic issue, restoring historic rights torn from China in its time of humiliation. The Party has been telling the people the humiliations-of-history story for a long time—and the people believe it. Domestic imperatives mean the Party must press on or be punished by the people. This is about domestic politics, not the international system.

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Listening to Beijing is to hear a litany of complaints about all the injustices imposed on China despite its indisputable rights and interests. The language of valiant victimhood is striking. Everyone is ganging up against poor China, but China will emerge victorious. The deep wounds of history throb. China proudly proclaims its power but the message is wrapped in a teenager’s question: Why is everyone so mean to me?

The crucial question that Beijing constantly worries about, often glimpsed, is the valiant victim conviction that everyone is plotting to foil its inevitable success. No wonder China faces huge problems and difficulties, with so much ranged against it.

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So it was that I turned on my mental decoder to listen to the Shangri-La speech by Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the PLA.

Admiral Sun spoke of China’s ‘enormous restraint’ and its goal of peace and stability:

We hope relevant countries will work together in the same direction to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

My decoder heard: We’re certainly going to keep building. Mountains of sand! Get used to it. Accept the new facts of our fait accompli. And by the way, America, this is our equivalent of the Caribbean.

Admiral Sun concluded: ‘We hope that all countries in the world will, in the spirit of win-win and all-win cooperation, strengthen communication and consultation, and make concerted efforts to safeguard peace and stability.’ Ah, yes, communication and consultation. The decoder offered this understanding: win-win means Beijing wins twice, all-win means that China always wins. Scrambled semiotics, indeed.

The U.S. speaks about freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. And, crucially, rule of law. The decoder, though, keeps throwing up Barack Obama’s State of the Union line that the U.S. should write the rules, not China.

Who rules and who is writing the rules?

When Xi Jinping proclaims an Asian future run by Asians for Asians, there’s a big power surge on the U.S. decoder. The American translation, as offered by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in its 2015 Asia Pacific Regional Security Assessment is that China’s objective is ‘to weaken U.S. alliances, erode American centrality in China’s neighborhood and eventually create a new security order with Asia at its core.’

When the U.S. says freedom of navigation and rule of law, what does China’s decoder hear? As Yanmei Xei interprets it, Beijing:

likely does not see the U.S. Navy’s action as being aimed at upholding international law. Rather, it thinks Washington is mainly out to block its rise, a narrative that already dominates China’s geopolitical consciousness.

Evelyn Goh saw something similar in what has become the well-rehearsed theatre of the annual Shangri-La Show:

For the Chinese, the Shangri-La Dialogue tends to highlight the uncomfortable reality that the Asia Pacific is filled with American allies and friends, many of whom have superior resources.

Beijing is acting on the assumption that its island-creation in the South China Sea (the assertion of its natural rights in its Caribbean) will be only a second or third order issue in the great power relationship with the U.S.

The U.S. takes no position on the merits of any claims. Fine by Beijing. The U.S. concern is freedom of navigation. Tick, says Beijing. And quickly on to more important matters.

The overarching concern, Beijing assumes, is to build the g2 to become the G2, the shadow condominium of the world’s top two powers. Many in Washington see the logic. Xi Jinping’s ‘new type of great power relationship’ will get another big show when he visits the U.S. in September.

The only problem with this view of the South China Sea as a non-core g2 issue is that Beijing’s decoder may not be picking up all the different signals coming from the U.S. For the U.S. Navy, this is core business. And, as the old line goes, the 7th Fleet steers a lot of U.S. foreign policy. There’s a reason the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command is always a Navy man.

From the U.S. Navy perspective, what the U.S. says about the South China Sea is exactly what it means. China may need to turn up the power of its decoder to consider the question posed by Nick Bisley: Why does the U.S. risk upsetting the tenor of Sino–American relations over rocks, islets and reefs?

Nick thinks China has been ‘genuinely surprised by the shift in tone and behaviour’ by the US over the South China Sea. To lessen the chance of any more surprises, Beijing should go back and re-read the speech that Admiral Harry Harris made to ASPI in March about China’s ‘great wall of sand.”

When Harris made that speech, he was Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Now he’s just stepped up to the top job: Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command.

When decoding what the other side is saying, it’s always important to see who is saying what, and what power they have to enforce their words.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This piece originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist.

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Why America Should Fear China's Hypersonic Nuclear Missile

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China all but confirmed it tested its hypersonic missile delivery vehicle a fourth time.

On Friday, China’s Defense Ministry seemed to confirm U.S. reports that Beijing tested its Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle on Sunday, June 7. Responding to an inquiry by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, China’s Defense Ministry said, “The scheduled scientific research and experiments in our territory is normal, and those tests are not targeted at any country and specific goals.”

The statement was eerily similar to the one China’s Defense Ministry issued following the January 2014 test of the Wu-14. At that time, the defense ministry said: “It is normal for China to conduct scientific experiments within its borders according to its plans. The tests were not aimed at any nation nor any specific target.”

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Last week’s test was the fourth one China has conducted in just 18 months, suggesting it is a priority of China’s military. The Wu-14, which can carry nuclear or conventional warheads, can travel at ten times the speed of sound, or 7,680 miles per hour. Its maneuverability enables it to bypass U.S. missile defense systems.

This point was underscored by He Qisong, a defense expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Speaking to the SCMP, He said that “The Wu-14 … is designed to penetrate US missile defence systems, meaning the PLA is capable of defending China's territorial sovereignty."

He added: "But such a test is only a nuclear deterrence. Neither China nor the U.S. wants to declare war over the South China Sea issues."

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Richard Fisher, an expert on China’s military, has previously explained that “The beauty of the HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] is that it can perform hypersonic precision strikes while maintaining a relatively low altitude and flat trajectory, making it far less vulnerable to missile defenses.”

Unlike the previous three tests, Bill Gertz's report on last week’s test said that the Wu-14 practiced “extreme maneuvers” designed to evade U.S. missile defense systems, which are only capable of destroying missiles that use predictable ballistic trajectories. Thus, the Wu-14, when officially fielded, will be a huge to boost to China, which has a small nuclear arsenal compared with the United States and Russia.

China has been improving its strategic deterrent in other ways in recent years. For example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is using a new ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Type 094, to conduct deterrent patrols for the first time. In April of this year, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the then-Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), said that the PLAN currently has three Type 094 SSBNs and could field eight of them by the end of the decade.

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China is not the only country developing hypersonic capabilities. It is also believed that the United States, Russia and India are also pursuing these capabilities. Regarding America’s hypersonic capabilities, Robert Farley has previously explained on The National Interest:

“The United States is working on the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a long-range, land-based glide vehicle that operates within the atmosphere in order to avoid the appearance of a ballistic missile. The United States has also done work on the X-51 “Waverider,” an air-launched, scramjet-powered vehicle capable of Mach 6.”

The fourth test of the Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle came just a day before Fan Changlong, a vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, began an extended trip to the United States where he has met with the likes of Ashton Carter and Susan Rice. It also comes as tensions grow in the South China Sea in response to Beijing’s massive land reclamation projects.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

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China Warns Japan to Stay out of South China Sea

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China is “gravely concerned and indignant” over Japan’s plans to step patrols in the South China Sea.

In a regular scheduled press conference on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hong Lei, warned Japan to stay out of the South China Sea dispute.

“The Chinese side is gravely concerned and indignant about the negative moves of the Japanese side. We have lodged multiple solemn representations with Japan,” Hong stated.

He went on to say:

Japan is not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue. Recently it has behaved in an abnormal way, deliberately thrust a hand in the South China Sea issue, driven a wedge among regional countries and maliciously created tensions in the South China Sea. Japan’s moves do no good to solve the South China Sea disputes, or safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea. It also severely damages the political and security mutual trust between China and Japan, and runs counter to the momentum of improving bilateral relations. We once again urge the Japanese side to abide by its commitment of not taking sides on the South China Sea disputes, put an immediate end to the hyping up of the South China Sea issue and groundless accusations against China, stop provoking conflicts among different parties for self-serving interests, genuinely maintain the momentum of improving Sino-Japanese relations and respect the efforts by China and ASEAN countries to safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea.

The spokesperson’s comments come on the heels of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces announcing it will hold a joint military exercise with the Philippines in the South China Sea later this month.

“We will announce the details such as the schedule and assets we will send as soon as the plan is fixed,” Tomohisa Takei, chief of staff for the Maritime Self-Defense Force, told Japanese reporters earlier this week. Nonetheless, Japanese media outlets have reported that Tokyo will dispatch a P3-C Orion patrol aircraft for the exercise.

Last month, Japan sent two destroyers to the South China Sea to hold a one-day exercise with the Philippines, which reportedly had one of its newest warships participate. That exercise took place just 300 kilometers away from the Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2011.

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The United States strongly backs Japan’s participation in the South China Sea, and in fact has reportedly proposed joint U.S.-Japanese patrols in the area.

In an interview with Reuters earlier this year, Admiral Robert Thomas, America’s top naval officer in the Western Pacific, said that "I think that JSDF (Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces) operations in the South China Sea makes sense in the future.” Thomas noted that Chinese capabilities in the region currently outmatch those of its neighbors, and therefore Southeast Asian nations see Japan as a stabilizing force.

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The United States has also increased its calls for China to stop its reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently trying to pass legislation that would give the JSDF the right to engage in “collective self-defense.” This would significantly reduce the legal barriers inhibiting Japan’s ability to play a military role in the South China Sea dispute.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

How China Could Become a Two-Ocean Power (Thanks to Pakistan)

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In the last few months Pakistan’s Government has made a number of decisions that have drawn the country even further into China’s geostrategic orbit. And although China and Pakistan have had a long and fruitful relationship for well over 50 years, it was the launch of the 2,900 km China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) during a visit to Pakistan by Chinese President Xi Jinping in April that qualitatively changed the relationship. This $46 billion CPEC project, which involves the construction of roads, railroads and power plants over a 15-year period, comes on top of other previous important Pakistan–China agreements in the military, energy and infrastructure fields.

The geostrategic importance of CPEC is bolstered by some earlier bilateral agreements. First, in April China was granted 40-year operation rights to the port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Beijing is expected to invest $1.62 billion in Gwadar. Gwadar will be where the CPEC begins and eventually makes its way to Kashgar in western China. Eventually when the port is fully operational and CPEC is completed, China will be able to transship some of its oil needs from that port, thus saving billions and precious time and most importantly avoiding the potentially vulnerable Malacca Strait. Gwadar will play a critical part in China’s land and maritime silk routes, linking it to Central Asia and beyond. Importantly, while Gwadar is being built as a commercial port and not as a naval facility for China’s navy—at least for the time being, it could potentially be developed as one in the future. Such a development would certainly up the ante in Sino-Indian maritime competition in the Indian Ocean.

Another little-publicized aspect of the CPEC agreement, still apparently under negotiation, is Pakistan’s purchase of eight diesel-powered attack submarines which would be conventionally armed. This would be one of Pakistan’s biggest weapons purchases ever, at about $6 billion. Pakistan’s possession of such submarines would seriously complicate any Indian attempt to blockade Karachi or Gwadar. The sale would further entrench China as Pakistan’s principal arms provider. In 2010 alone, Pakistan was the destination for 60% of China’s total arms sales to the world.

China’s interest in deepening its involvement in Pakistan is nothing new. What has changed and has enabled the Chinese to intensify their focus on Pakistan, is the effective end of the West’s, and in particular the United States’, military operations in Afghanistan in 2015. Accordingly, NATO’s departure from Afghanistan has had two consequences: it has created a regional power vacuum and it has diminished America’s interest in Pakistan. And China has quickly jumped into the breach.

China has used this opportunity to bolster its long-term economic and strategic interests in Pakistan, the critical land bridge in the development of China’s Silk Road. Accordingly, the Chinese leaders have been willing to invest substantially in the development of Pakistan’s decrepit infrastructure, particularly in its roads and the energy sector. In absolute and relative terms, CPEC is huge compared to Washington’s last big economic package of $7.5 billion (2009–14). The completion of the CPEC would also enable China to link up with its significant economic interests in neighboring Afghanistan, particularly in copper and oil. Significantly, the first capital that the new president of Afghanistan visited was Beijing, not Washington, let alone New Delhi.

However, for China’s ambitious projects in Pakistan to come to fruition, the restive frontier area in western Pakistan, notably the provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, will need to be pacified. Chinese leaders have pressured Pakistan to ruthlessly pursue the Afghan Taliban and their fellow ideological travellers, including the Uighur militants of the al-Qaeda-linked separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), who are hiding in those areas. ETIM fighters have launched raids into Xinjiang province from those lawless areas in the past. Accordingly, partly prompted by Beijing, the Pakistan military has been engaged in a year-long operation in North Waziristan hunting down the terrorists, including the members of the ETIM. Unfortunately, many of these have fled across the border into Afghanistan. China also recently hosted peace talks between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, with the Pakistan army intelligence present as well. Baluchistan also remains a serious problem for China, with Chinese workers having been killed by Baluch separatists in the past. In order to avoid such a reoccurrence, the Pakistan government will be assigning a division of Pakistan’s special security forces to protect Chinese workers in the future.

Notwithstanding the difficulties discussed above, if the CPEC does become a reality—and this is a big if—this would be very good news for Pakistan, as it would help address some of the country’s major developmental and economic issues. Put differently, it would prevent Pakistan from collapsing as a functioning state, a distinct possibility down the road and something China would not want to see happen given the knock-on effects this would have in the region. However, in geostrategic terms the success of CPEC would not be good news for the U.S.: it would displace the US as Pakistan’s major external patron in favor of China. Most importantly, it would provide China with a firm and reliable long-term beachhead in the Indian Ocean close to the Persian Gulf, effectively making China a two-ocean power. This would be a red rag to India. So no wonder India has been complaining loudly about the CPEC. But the even more important question for policymakers in Washington is how this mega-Chinese project will affect America’s own pivot to Asia in the longer-term.

This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.

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America Must Stop Ignoring the South Caucasus

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to meet his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, on June 13 in Baku. On the agenda: resolving the quarter-century-old dispute over the breakaway Nagorno Karabakh, a majority-Armenian territory which split from Azerbaijan in a brutal war with Armenia during the early 1990s. A ceasefire concluded the active phase of the conflict in 1994, but the feud remains unresolved, and violent incidents persist along the line of contact. 

There is little reason to believe the meeting will yield any progress. An official peace process, the OSCE Minsk Group, has been underway since 1992 with joint Russian-French-American leadership. The Minsk Group is plagued by Western inattention and Kremlin intrigue. Russia deliberately plays both sides in Nagorno Karabakh and Washington and its allies seem not to care. Putin’s meeting comes only three days after American Minsk Group representative James Warlick discussed the conflict with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian. That Russia provides presidential-level attention to Nagorno Karabakh while the United States offers only its liaison to a paralyzed negotiation forum is illustrative of U.S. indifference towards the conflict.

American disinterest could prove costly for both the United States and Europe. For the United States, settling the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict would carry two key benefits: improving energy security for European allies and reducing the risk of a conflict involving NATO member Turkey.

Putin previously met Aliyev and Sarkisian in August 2014 to discuss the conflict. Before that, Russia organized several presidential-level negotiations in 2011, 2008, and 2004. This stands in stark contrast with Western efforts, marked by abortive talks held in the United States in 2001 and in France in 2006.

In 2010, Aliyev and Sarkisian verbally agreed to some elements of the Madrid Principles, a basic outline for the peaceful resolution of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. This plan includes a phased withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno Karabakh and a final referendum on the territory’s political status. While Baku and Yerevan still dispute many issues, the Madrid Principles provide a strong foundation for compromise and a mediated settlement. On the surface, this makes the lack of progress in recent years surprising. Closer examination of Russia’s role in the South Caucasus indicates otherwise. Moscow, ostensibly pursuing a negotiated peace, benefits from an indefinite dispute. 

Azerbaijan imports 85 percent of its weaponry from Russia. Baku’s energy wealth allows it to dramatically boost defense spending, even amidst falling oil prices. Azerbaijan’s military budget in 2003 was $163 million. By 2014, the country was spending $4.8 billion on defense, far outmatching rival Armenia’s $3.2 billion budget.

Armenia simply cannot afford the same degree of military prowess as Azerbaijan. As Baku grows stronger, Armenia becomes more dependent on Russia for security. Yerevan occasionally registers a complaint with its powerful patron over arms sales to Azerbaijan, but Armenia can do little more than that. At the same time, Baku risks war with Russia if it attacks its western neighbor, as Moscow is bound to Armenia by the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s mutual defense agreement. The commander of the Russian military base in Gyumri, Armenia, reported in 2013 that his troops would intervene on Yerevan’s behalf if Azerbaijan attempted to retake Karabakh by force. However, these statements are of questionable value to Armenia, as they have never been confirmed by Russia’s top officials.

Despite the dangers associated with renewed conflict, Baku and Yerevan are demonstrating a growing willingness to test one another’s patience. Over the past month, Armenian and Azerbaijani media have frequently reported ceasefire violations by the other side. These incidents come after months of intermittent fighting on the line of contact.

Eventually, Azerbaijan may determine that retaking Nagorno Karabakh is worth the risk. If Russia entered the fray, it would undoubtedly result in a catastrophic defeat for Baku. However, Moscow could remain on the sidelines, on the basis that Nagorno Karabakh is not part of Armenia’s internationally recognized territory and is therefore not protected by the CSTO. In this case, the conflict’s outcome might be less decisive. A protracted struggle could develop with or without Russian intervention, endangering prospective energy projects in the Caspian Sea basin and damage existing infrastructure. This would benefit Russia, which perceives Western energy enterprises in the area as threatening its dominant position in the European oil and gas market.

Would Russia really abandon its Armenian ally in a war with Azerbaijan? It is certainly possible. If Russia did fail to intervene on Armenia’s behalf, Yerevan would have little room to rebuke the Kremlin for its duplicity. Years of Russian protection have steadily eroded Armenian sovereignty. The Russian border guards who patrol Armenia’s frontiers and the 5,000 soldiers stationed in Gyumri are only the tip of the iceberg: Moscow’s influence now extends far beyond military affairs. As of 2008, Russia controlled 80 percent of Armenian energy infrastructure. In June 2015, Yerevan announced plans to sell an Armenia-Iran natural gas pipeline to Gazprom, further entrenching Russia’s position in the small South Caucasus republic. Armenia is a member of the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union and Russia is the country’s single largest import and export partner. All of these factors grant Russia a wider range of policy options in the South Caucasus at Armenia’s expense.

What is clear is that Russia is unlikely to mediate in good faith as long as it can control the initiative in the Nagorno Karabakh dispute and profit from the conflict’s perpetuation. For Moscow, revenue from arms sales to Armenia and Azerbaijan, political leverage in the South Caucasus, and protection of Russian energy interests all come before a peaceful settlement. This does not bode well for the United States or its European allies.

Escalating hostilities might endanger emerging energy projects such as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP). This system is the first to bring Caspian natural gas to Europe, drawing supplies from Azerbaijan via Turkey and Georgia. The project would help diversify Europe’s energy supplies, making Russian influence vis-à-vis Gazprom less potent. This should be especially important for the United States, as current energy politics make it difficult for Washington and its European allies to respond in concert to the Ukraine crisis.  

Although TANAP’s planned terminus is in Azerbaijan, in the future, the route could link up with sources in Iraqi Kurdistan, Central Asia, and even Iran. Even without these additional outlets, the system promises to reach a capacity of 31 billion cubic meters of gas by 2026. Renewed conflict in the South Caucasus could delay all of these prospects. With TANAP construction underway as of March 2015, workers and equipment are also placed at risk.

In addition to threatening European energy security, another South Caucasus war could draw in other regional powers like Turkey. Ankara previously played a significant role in the active phase of the Nagorno Karabakh War (as did Russia). To demonstrate solidarity with Baku, Turkey sealed the border with Armenia and instituted a blockade in 1993, measures that remain in place today. Turkish officers also trained the Azerbaijani military.

Turkey and Armenia lack diplomatic ties. If Ankara became involved again, it might find pretext to invoke Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, the charter’s mutual defense clause (Turkey already threatened such a move over Syrian Civil War spillover). In this eventuality, the United States and other NATO members would be drawn into a conflict directly on Russia’s doorstep, something that would undoubtedly poison already strained relations between Moscow and the West. If the United States can induce Turkish cooperation, Ankara’s position would be a valuable asset in conflict mediation rather than a liability in regional security.

Armenia is strategically insecure, but it also maintains control over Nagorno Karabakh two decades after the active phase of the conflict ended. Because of this, Armenia may perceive little need to make concessions.

That being said, diplomatic normalization with Turkey and an end to the land blockade on Armenia’s western border are objectives Yerevan cannot achieve under the status quo. Washington can help facilitate normalization between its Turkish ally and Armenia in exchange for settlement of Karabakh. In this scenario, Armenia can yield on certain issues relating to Azerbaijan while still getting an economic and political return. Terminating the blockade and normalizing relations would improve Armenia’s economy and help alleviate its isolation.

Turkey would reap several benefits as well. The country wishes to enter into a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Union, in which Armenia is a member. Open borders and stable diplomatic ties could make such a move less complicated for Ankara. Turkey also has a 30 percent share in the TANAP project, meaning it would benefit from a stable environment in the South Caucasus.

A framework for peace already exists. While challenges will arise, the United States can and should commit itself to a consistent negotiation process on Nagorno Karabakh. Renewed warfare would carry negative ramifications well beyond the South Caucasus. Armenia and Azerbaijan need a mediating partner that benefits from peace in the region, not perpetual conflict.

Evan Gottesman is an editorial intern at The National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia/WalkerBaku

TopicsSecurity RegionsEurasia

Why China and India Want Russia's New Armata Battle Tank

The Buzz

China and India are among the countries that could purchase Russia’s new T-14 Armata battle tank, according to the Russian government.

Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, tells Russian media that the Russian military will be the first to operate the new tank, which Moscow first unveiled at a parade celebrating the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.

“There really is interest, despite the fact that the equipment is expensive,” Kozhin said, according to Russian media outlets. “To a large extent, it is our traditional partners; India, China and South-East Asia.”

The need for China makes sense. Although China has largely settled its land border disputes with neighbors, China’s military still lacks a viable battle tank, despite its valiant modernization efforts,. “China’s main battle tank, the Type 99, is still a derivative of the old Soviet T-72 main battle tank, with a design that stretches back to the mid-1980s,” Kyle Mizokami noted on The National Interest back in May.

(Recommended: India to Test First Homegrown Aircraft Carrier)

On the other hand, India’s land forces are in higher demand, particularly with regards to Pakistan but also other neighboring countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, which Indian special forces just conducted a cross-border raid against.

Both countries also have a long history of buying Russian weaponry, including tanks. As just noted, the People’s Liberation Army still relies on the T-72 as its main battle tank. In addition, the Indian army operates the Soviet-built T-90, which is itself a derivative of the T-72.

Delhi also uses other tanks such as the indigenously produced Arjun Mark-1 tank. These have proven unreliable at times, however. Indeed, back in May India announced that most of its Mark-1 tank fleet had been grounded due to technical problems with its transmission system, targeting and thermal sights.

“Nearly 75 percent of the 124 tanks with the Army are grounded," an unnamed Indian Army official told Defense News at the time.

(Recommended: Why America Should Really Fear Russia's Armata T-14 Tank)

Rahul Bhonsle, a retired Indian Army brigadier general, reflected:

"There are a number of issues related to functionality due to imported components, which seem to be bugging the Arjun Mark-1 fleet for some time now. The technical snags have reportedly led to much of the fleet remaining non operational, creating a void in the tank strength of the Indian Army."

India also operates 118 domestically built Mark-2 tanks, which feature a number of improvements over the Mark-1. The Mark-2 tanks have also reportedly performed well when pitted against the Russian-built T-90s.

Still, the T-14 Armata battle tank would offer both India and China a significant upgrade.

As Robert Farley has noted on The National Interest:

“The main battle tank configuration of the Armata has several strong points. It has a modern armor system, an unmanned turret, and a crew compartment protected from the most common types of enemy fire.  The emphasis on crew protection comes, as many have noted, as part of a new Russian focus on the protection of professional soldiers.”

(Recommended: China's Testing Asia's Largest Warship)

Farley also pointed out:

“The flexibility of the Armata frame gives it a chance on the export market.  Different customers have different needs, and the Armata has the potential to solve a lot of problems. This is particularly the case given that the Armata family is, like the Merkava it’s based on, designed to operate across the combat spectrum.  Armies needing low-intensity combat options could use the Armata in some of its configurations, while armies needing a serious, conventional main battle tank could still find much to like.”

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

Image: Wikimedia/Vitaly V. Kuzmin

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

China Sends Most Lethal Bombers Near Taiwan, Philippines

The Buzz

Chinese bombers participated in a joint air-sea military exercise near Taiwan and the Philippines this week.

On Wednesday China announced that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) were conducting a joint exercise near the Bashi Channel. The channel sits near islands owned by the Philippines and Taiwan, and the drills were conducted near both of those countries’ Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ).

A Chinese Navy official downplayed the importance of the drills, claiming they were routine and in line with international law.

"During the drills there was no impact upon freedom of navigation or fly-through in the relevant seas or air," the official said, Reuters reported. He added: "Going forward, similar drills and exercises will keep taking place.”

(Recommended: China's Lethal Bombers Fly Over Japanese Strait)

According to Want China Times, photos of the drill reveal that it included both China’s H-6G/K strategic bombers and J-11B air superiority fighter jets.

It is believed that the H-6G is only intended for missile targeting, and may not even carry any payloads itself. However, the H-6K is the most advanced variant of China’s H-6 bomber series. As Richard Fisher, a leading expert on China’s military, has noted: “the H-6K is the most radically modified variant, replacing its glass nose with a large solid nose housing a large radar and new electro-optical targeting pod. Its use of two Russian-made 12-ton thrust D-30-KP2 turbofans and lighter-weight composites have reportedly extended its range by 30% to a combat radius of 3,500 km.”

Regarding weaponry, Fisher has explained that “The H-6K carries six KD-20 LACMs [Land-Attack Cruise Missiles] on wing pylons plus one or more in its bomb bay. It can also carry a wide range of new precision-guided munitions available from four Chinese weapon manufacturers.”

(Recommended: Face Off: China's Navy Stalks U.S. Ship in South China Sea)

For its part, Chinese state-owned media has said of the bomber: “medium-sized craft designed for long-range attacks, stand-off attacks and large-area air patrol. Unlike its predecessor, the H-6K can carry cruise missiles under its wings. The H-6K also maneuvers more deftly than the H-6 and requires a smaller crew to operate.”

The J-11B fighter is a derivate of the Russian-built Su-27SK that contains a significant number of upgrades and Chinese products. Perhaps most notably, the J-11B is powered by the Chinese built WS-10 engines rather than Russian ones like the J-11A. China’s aerospace industry has struggled to build sufficiently powerful engines for its military aircraft.

The apparently now routine joint air-sea exercises China is conducting in the area are likely to greatly unnerve Taiwan. One perceived weakness of China’s military forces are their lack of training, particularly joint training among China’s different military services.

An assault on Taiwan would require the seamless integration of Chinese naval and air assets along with amphibious forces. Thus the drills, which China’s defense ministry claimed were not directed at any specific country, will enhance the PLA’s preparedness for an attack on Taiwan.

(Recommended: Why China and India Want Russia's New Armata Battle Tank)

The drill in the Bashi Channel comes just weeks after Beijing sent H-6K bombers through a key strategic strait near Japan. As The National Interest previously reported, the PLAAF recently sent the bombers through the Miyako Strait, which is a gap 160 miles wide between Japan’s Miyako and Okinawa islands. The strait provides the crucial gateway for China’s North and East Sea Fleets to access the wider Western Pacific.

Since coming into power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered the PLA to enhance its real combat awareness through stepped up military exercises. The military appears to be heeding his edict.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia