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Would America Back India in a War?

The Buzz

Last month, I had the privilege of taking part in a Track 1.5 strategic dialogue on Indo-U.S. relations. Held in New Delhi, the gathering was an unabashed success, and the richness and candor of the discussions aptly reflected the renewed momentum of the bilateral relationship. Over the course of the event, much mention was made of Obama’s recent visit, and of one document in particular: the U.S. India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.

Shortly after having completed my presentation on Indo-U.S. cooperation in the Indian Ocean, I was asked a pointed question by a retired Indian Navy Admiral. Should India, queried the Admiral, read more deeply into both governments’ decision to jointly reference the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? More specifically, did this mean that the United States would provide military assistance to India in the event of a Sino-Indian naval confrontation in maritime Southeast Asia?

As the distinguished veteran concluded his remarks, I could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from some of the U.S. government participants. Thank God, they were no doubt thinking, that this question was addressed to a non-government employee. I found myself compelled, however, to give the vague and somewhat bureaucratic response that any U.S. official would have made.

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Much would depend, naturally, on the circumstances of the incident, and whether China was clearly perceived as the aggressor. But, I added, one must not forget that while India was a valued strategic partner of the United States, it was not an ally. Strategic partnerships, however tight and wide-ranging they may appear, do not come with the binding security guarantees that traditionally characterize alliance structures.

And therein lies the rub. Even though the Indo-U.S. entente is perhaps this century’s single most important bilateral relationship, with the greatest potential to positively shape the Asian security environment, it is not-nor will it ever be-a formalized alliance. The reasons for this singular state of affairs are well known.

Indeed, since independence, New Delhi’s grand strategy has always been coterminous with a quest for greater strategic autonomy, and with a solid aversion for any form of partnership that could lead to entanglement. This autonomy is perceived as a key enabler, allowing India to practice a “multi-vectored” diplomacy that maximizes freedom of maneuver, while minimizing the risks of friction that could flow from more solidified alignments.

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Historical studies have pointed to the inherent plasticity of any successful grand strategy. This is something that India’s foremost strategists have fully interiorized, with a much-discussed-and unfairly lampooned-2012 study placing a strong emphasis on subtlety over “narrow linear narratives about what serves our (India’s) national interest,” in a world which is described as both fragmented and in flux. India’s grand strategy, the authors pursue, “will require a skillful management of complicated coalitions and opportunities in environments that may be inherently unstable and volatile rather than structurally settled.”

As India’s growth in wealth, influence and power becomes more manifest, it has presented the United States with a unique form of diplomatic challenge. While Chinese nationalists have argued in favor of a “new model of great power relations,” India’s political leadership seeks, first and foremost, a new model of strategic partnership. This partnership may come to yield a number of rich dividends in the defense realm, in terms of technology and intelligence sharing, joint training, or arms sales. Yet singularly absent are the most important components of any alliance—a clear strategic direction, and a sense of reciprocal security commitments and/or guarantees.

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India may, according to some reports, hold more joint military exercises with the United States than any other country, but nobody quite knows the conditions under which Indian jawans and U.S. grunts would find themselves crouching in the same foxhole.

Similarly, both countries’ defense communities may be moving toward cooperating on issues as sensitive and as critical as aircraft carrier design, but it remains uncertain whether the U.S. Navy would intervene were the INS Vikramaditya to find itself crippled by a Chinese torpedo.

To be fair, neither country expects the other to automatically intervene in the event of conflict. Indian security managers have long grappled with the grim prospect of fighting a two-front war alone, although the rapid growth in Chinese military strength and steady hemorrhaging of India’s fighter squadrons have begun to raise serious questions over the continued viability of this posture. American planners, for their part, rarely factor Indian military forces into their wargaming scenarios for the Indo-Pacific. Influential champions of the Indo-U.S. relationship, such as Ashley Tellis, have rightly observed that it does not require clearly defined mutual security commitments in order to be transformational, and that it is in the U.S. interests to bolster Indian power regardless. By virtue of its sheer size, geographical position, and latent capabilities, there is a certain degree of automaticity to India’s emergence as a major balancing power in Asia.

Nevertheless, it would no doubt behoove security communities in both countries to more frequently discuss and game out black swan scenarios that could, depending on how they are managed (or mismanaged), either irreparably damage, or durably reinforce the Indo-U.S. security relationship.

The most oft cited, and perhaps most likely, scenario is another major terrorist attack in India, with origins that clearly trace back to elements within Pakistan’s byzantine security apparatus.  The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was widely lauded by the international community for its measured response following the Mumbai attacks of 2008. Few analysts believe that the current Indian government would-or could-exert such restraint. Modi’s forceful response to recent disturbances along the Indo-Pakistani border, when viewed in combination with the Indian National Security Advisor’s recent statements on the need for India to adopt a more “offensive form of defense,” should act as clear signals to American observers that India cannot-and will not-simply absorb another Mumbai.  

There would be enormous public pressure within India for the government to act, and a roster of punitive actions would no doubt be considered. These options might range from the establishment of a maritime exclusion zone off Pakistan’s Makran coast, to cross-border special forces raids, to standoff missile and airstrikes against terrorist training camps, with the last option being the most likely. As people such as George Perkovich have thoughtfully demonstrated, all of these options are fraught with risk, and have the potential for grave escalation. Yet if military inaction on the part of the Indian government is no longer conceivable, they will all need to be considered—especially if the only alternative is a large-scale mobilization of ground forces in the vein of Operation Parakram.

If India were to engage in a military riposte against terrorist or hybrid elements on Pakistani soil, what should be the position of the U.S. government? Should the U.S. publicly support India’s actions, or should it remain silent? It is highly unlikely that the Indo-U.S. relationship could recover were Washington to choose the latter. Perhaps more importantly, should the U.S. go beyond publicly supporting to enabling certain Indian cross-border strikes, by providing actionable intelligence? One could imagine that in some cases, providing a more accurate picture of the situation might in fact help mitigate escalation and reduce casualties, either by helping India discriminate in-between terrorist actors and civilians co-located within dense urban environments, or by helping Indian military planners more effectively tailor their response. So might the emergency provision of certain forms of military equipment, ranging from precision munitions to night vision equipment for India’s special forces. U.S. policymakers would need to carefully balance these considerations against their longstanding concerns over the risks of irredeemably alienating Pakistan’s men in khaki.  These decisions would naturally be heavily influenced by a number of other externalities, such as the state of domestic and international opinion, the number and nationality of the terrorists’ victims, and the importance attached by the U.S. administration to its respective ties with each country.

If, God forbid, the crisis were to evolve into something far more serious, and U.S. intelligence officials were to get wind of the imminent deployment within Pakistan of tactical nuclear weapons, should they alert their Indian counterparts? Choosing to do so would almost certainly be viewed by the Pakistanis as an act of brazen hostility, but opting for silence might be perceived by New Delhi (were its intelligence services to subsequently find out), as an equally unmentionable betrayal.

The tense situation along the Sino-Indian border and how it might pertain to the future of the U.S.-India security relationship also warrants greater scrutiny. In the event of a Sino-Indian border war, would decision-makers in New Delhi once again turn in desperation to the United States for assistance, as they did during the 1962 war? And if they did, would an increasingly cautious and war-weary United States respond with the same vigor of the Kennedy administration? What form could U.S. assistance take? Might the United States, for example, be able to provide vital non-kinetic assistance in the form of cyber attacks against Chinese battle networks? Could the U.S. work behind the scenes to provide Indian forces with more robust space-based surveillance intelligence and better real-time targeting information? Would such forms of covert assistance be considered less escalatory than providing India with direct military support? Or would the White House, echoing its current ambivalence to the arming of forces in Ukraine, prevaricate and/or refuse to come to India’s aid? These questions could also apply to India’s stance in the event of a Sino-U.S. war in Northeast Asia. Would New Delhi remain on the sidelines while conflict raged in-between its foremost geopolitical rival and its most powerful democratic partner? Might such an event be viewed by India as a welcome opportunity to consolidate its own position along the Sino-Indian border? Could India provide the United States and its allies with intelligence on Chinese subsurface and surface deployments in the Indian Ocean? If conflict were to spill out of the Malacca Strait and into the Indian Ocean, how would the Indian Navy and Air Force respond?

These are but a few of the contingencies that both countries’ security communities should be discussing, whether in the form of joint wargaming between both militaries or under the aegis of future Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues. For while the Indo-U.S. relationship will continue to make progress in times of peace, it is in times of crisis that it will be forged-for better or for worse.

Iskander Rehman, Non-Resident Fellow for South Asia, Atlantic Council of the United States.

Image: Creative Commons 2.5. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

India's New Mega Weapon: Nuclear-Armed Supersonic Missiles

The Buzz

India’s nuclear command has begun receiving fighter jets armed with the country’s most advanced, supersonic cruise missile.

According to media reports, India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) has begun receiving 42 Su-30MKI air dominance fighters modified to carry air-launched BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. This will significantly enhance the striking power of the air leg of India’s nuclear triad.

“Individually, the Su-30 and BrahMos are powerful weapons,” Russia and India Report noted. “But when the world’s most capable fourth generation fighter is armed with a uniquely destructive cruise missile, together they are a dramatic force multiplier.”

The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI is a twin-seater, highly maneuverable, fourth-generation multirole combat fighter aircraft built by Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau and licensed to India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The plane will serve as the backbone of India’s Air Force through 2020 and beyond. Delhi has already acquired around 200 jets, and eventually plans to acquire 282 of them.

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The Brahmos is a joint development between joint effort between India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroeyenia. Capable of traveling at speeds of Mach 3.0, the Brahmos is the fastest cruise missile in the world. As Russia and India Report explained, “The BrahMos’ 3000 km per second speed – literally faster than a bullet – means it hits the target with a huge amount of kinetic energy. In tests, the BrahMos has often cut warships in half and reduced ground targets to smithereens.”

The same report notes that the Su-30 will add to the Brahmos’ already deadly effect. “The Sukhoi’s blistering speed will add extra launch momentum to the missile, plus the aircraft’s ability to penetrate hardened air defences means there is a greater chance for the pilot to deliver the missile on to its designated targets.”

Pairing the Su-30 with the Brahmos missile will also drastically expand the striking power of the air leg of India’s nuclear triad. The Su-30 itself has a range of up to 1,800 kilometers while the Brahmos missile can strike targets nearly 300 kilometers away. Thus, the newly modified Su-30s will allow India’s nuclear aircraft to strike deep in the heart of China or Pakistan, Delhi’s two main adversaries.

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The plan to modify the Su-30 to carry the Brahmos missiles was first hatched back in 2010 when the SFC submitted a proposal for two squadrons of Su-30s to be put under its command. Later, in 2012, India’s cabinet approved the project to modify 42 Su-30s to carry 216 Brahmos missiles. According to the Times of India, the integration project was mostly carried out by BrahMos Aerospace, with HAL also contributing crucial modifications.

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The first of the new planes was handed over to the SFC in February and is believed to have undergone tests last month. Production on the second of the modified Su-30s has already begun. It is unclear when the SFC expects to receive the rest of the planes.

The Brahmos-armed Su-30s is only one of the ways that India is strengthening its strategic deterrent. It has also been busy testing the Agni-V, which is three-stage solid-fueled intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) with a range of about 5,000 km. When the Agni-V is inducted into service, India will have the ability to strike any part of China with nuclear weapons for the first time. Furthermore, India is currently testing ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which will complete the nuclear triad.

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

Image: Wikimedia/g4sp

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia

Get Ready: How We Wage War Is About to Change Dramatically

The Buzz

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) recently released a couple of reports that should be required reading for anyone thinking about future force structures. Although looking at different domains—one concerns itself with air combat and the other sea power—there are some common threads that are worth understanding before committing tens of billions of dollars on future forces.

John Stillion’s Trends in air-to-air combat looks at air combat in ‘the missile age.’ From trends in air-to-air kills since the 1960s, Stillion shows that the ‘traditional’ strengths of maneuverability and speed required for air-to-air combat are increasingly being trumped by long-range sensors and weapons. Instead, he argues that a combination of low observability, situational awareness through powerful sensors and long-range weapons that can take advantage of that sensor range will be decisive factors in the future.

In one way that ought to comfort Australian air power planners because those are exactly the attributes designed into the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (although it should also be a handy aerodynamic performer). But the F-35 isn’t a long-range, high endurance platform. The CSBA study describes a possible convergent evolution of future ‘fighter’ and ‘bomber’ aircraft, in which both are large enough to be able to traverse large distances (to keep their bases safe) and to carry large weapon and sensor payloads in order to deliver their terminal effects from stand-off ranges. By so doing, the need for supersonic performance and high manoeuvrability could disappear, with considerable benefits for designers—and maybe even a step back down the historical cost curves that have been relentlessly driving down fleet sizes and increasing fleet ages.

In the maritime environment, CSBA’s Andrew Krepinevich has a look at the impact of long-range sensors and weapons for surface fleet operations in his report Maritime competition in a mature precision-strike regime. As we contemplate here in Australia our future surface fleet needs, it should be sobering reading. Krepinevich takes the view that the recent past—‘an aberration since the Cold War’s end’—in which the US had almost uncontested control of the seas and a near-monopoly on high-precision weapons was unrepresentative of the future:

“For over two decades, the U.S. military has enjoyed a near-monopoly in precision-guided weaponry and their associated battle networks. Recently, however, the proliferation of these capabilities to other militaries and non-state entities is gathering momentum.

The extended period during which the U.S. military has enjoyed a major advantage in this aspect of the military competition suggests it may be slow to appreciate the progressive loss of this advantage.”

He suggests that ‘anti-access/area denial’ systems, including land- and littoral-based missile systems are simply becoming too effective for surface ships to safely operate in their vicinity, creating a maritime ‘no man’s land’. I’ve made similar points, and in talks I’ve referred to future ‘bubbles of maritime hegemony’ around any technically proficient power. Krepenevich calls them ‘bastions’, but it’s the same idea.

At the recent ASPI Future Surface Fleet conference, I made the prediction that future maritime power projection into such regions would be based on drones and submarines rather than surface task groups. Krepenevich’s prescription is similar, though he adds cyber-strike to the mix:

"The fleet’s ability to [operate in contested environments] will be influenced greatly by the range and stealth of its strike systems, by its ability to counter the enemy’s C4ISR systems—its battle network—that supports its weapons, and by its ability to survive an attack.

… submarines (especially nuclear-powered submarines) are likely to be one of the few naval assets (in addition to extended-range missiles and long-range carrier aircraft) capable of operating at acceptable risk in the maritime no man’s land and penetrating the enemy’s A2/AD defenses.”

There’s a lot more in this important study, and interested readers should find an hour to read it in its entirety. It’s important to note that the report doesn’t discount a future role for major ships—but it’ll be a significantly different one involving large stand-off distances and the deployment of sub-systems that deliver the intended effects, much as in the air picture Stillion describes.

A point that really struck me was Krepenevich’s observation that at times of significant technological development, the powers most at risk of being on the wrong side of the new weaponry are those that have invested heavily in the old forces—and thus have more institutional inertia and probably less ability to be innovative. Australia’s currently spending something like $20 billion on a first class tactical aircraft capability. And we’ll likely spend at least that on the replacement for the Anzac frigates, to join around $10 billion worth of Air Warfare Destroyers. We’re placing a $50 billion bet that the technologies that have provided best value in the past few decades will continue to do so. We better hope we’re right.

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

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

A Clash in Cyberspace: Google and the European Union Go to War

The Buzz

The European Commission’s accusations that Google has violated EU competition law by abusing its dominant position in the Internet search market generated significant attention. This case is important, but not just for the EU and Google. This case involves many economic, political, and tech layers, including three different, but overlapping, disputes about competition, political power, and sovereignty.

European Commission v. Google, Inc.

The first dispute is the European Commission’s case against Google under EU competition law (what Americans call antitrust law). Most systems of competition law prohibit companies from abusing dominant market positions, so the EU is not applying concepts alien to the United States. The EU and Google will go head-to-head on the law, but behind this lawyering is something important—the significance of competition law to the European project of an “ever closer union of peoples.”

The objective of regulating private sector power is part of the DNA of the European project. It has been present from its early beginnings in the early 1950s (e.g., the Schuman Declaration). The project’s founders sought to prevent another European war through economic integration. The founding treaties gave authority over economic competition in the common market to supra-national institutions. Monitoring economic competition facilitates the establishment and operation of the common market, as well as protects individuals, societies, and governments from the political influence that monopolies and cartels can exercise.

In short, the case against Google reflects the warp and weft of the EU’s raison d’être. The EU’s tenacity on competition law has been challenged as outdated given the expansion of the common market, liberalized trading regimes, and the rise of disruptive technologies. But, for the EU, competition law is fundamental, not ephemeral. This commitment does not mean the EU will prevail against Google. It does, however, partially explain why the EU brought the case: Europe believes that competition law can help foster an ever closer union of peoples.

European Influence v. American Innovation

Within the legal case is a dispute arising from the EU’s exercise of political power against technological innovation from the United States. Commentary on the European Commission’s charges against Google has highlighted the gap between the paucity of tech innovation in the EU and the seemingly relentless, globally spreading innovation from U.S. companies. As The Economist put it, “Europe is belatedly discovering its failure to develop many of the platforms underpinning the online economy. Much of the world’s digital territory has in effect been ceded to America without a fight.” Whatever its other virtues, the common market has not created the conditions that fuel the kind of tech innovation the United States has achieved.

In the absence of competitive tech innovation, the EU uses what it has—political and regulatory authority over economic activities and the conditions of competition in the common market. For innovative companies, the EU is a lucrative market that can’t be ignored. This gives the EU political power, and it can, literally, lay down the law in ways not even the biggest, most cutting-edge tech innovators can ignore. This leverage bolsters the EU’s influence in international economics and politics in ways it cannot achieve through tech innovation, diplomacy, or military power.

The Google case also allows the EU to flex its economic muscles (especially vis-à-vis the United States) to assert its policy preferences in other areas of digital policy, such as imposing its views on the protection of personal data and electronic surveillance in a post-Snowden age. In this sense, competition law reflects not only fundamental EU principles but also a source of European power in international relations.

Sovereignty v. Silicon Valley

Google’s success in Europe, and the challenge it poses to the EU’s ethos and political influence associated with EU competition law, relates to the third dispute—the manner in which tech innovations from Silicon Valley challenge political authority and sovereignty. The tension between border-bypassing technologies and sovereignty is not new, but the battle is intensifying across authoritarian and democratic states.

Google is a powerful case in point. In 2010, the Chinese government essentially forced Google to kowtow to Beijing or leave China, and Google left. Although the EU is not a state, it exercises supra-national authority over the conditions of competition. So, its charges against Google are and attempt to bring the company’s activities under its political and legal control. Other countries, such as India and Russia, are also scrutinizing Google’s behavior in their respective territories. As part of the Silicon Valley reaction to Snowden’s disclosures, Google joined other companies in strengthening encryption for digital communications, much to the dismay of U.S., UK, and EU policymakers who believe stronger encryption will harm national security—a fundamental responsibility of sovereign governments.

So, the EU case against Google is, indeed, a big deal for economic, political, and technological reasons that have global implications. Keep that in mind next time you Google something.

This piece first appeared on CFR's Blog Net Politics here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons

TopicsGoogle RegionsEurope

Explained: How to Start a U.S.-China Cold War

The Buzz

Last month, a majority of the Republicans in the U.S. Senate sent an open letter to the leadership of Iran.

In it, they declared that any deal on Iranian nuclear technology between Tehran and the Obama Administration might be undone by Republicans in Washington, especially if they re-take the White House in 2016. This was widely understood as an effort to undermine President Obama's search for a nuclear deal with Iran. There was much soul-searching about whether the GOP had overstepped its constitutional bounds, the Republicans' “insurrectionary” disdain for President Obama, and so on.

But what I found most notable is how dangerous these sorts of neoconservative shenanigans would be if they were applied in Asia. 

As I have argued elsewhere (short versionlong version), neoconservatism is handicapping America's ability to pivot to Asia. Although the Middle East is objectively less important to America's future than Asia, the Middle East plays a far greater role in our politics and activates far more social mobilization and political attention, particularly on the right.

For example, the foreign policy “litmus tests” (ie. where public opinion is deeply informed and highly committed) for GOP presidential contenders all turn today on Middle Eastern questions such as Israel, ISIS and Iran. This was evident in the presidential campaign debates four years ago, and I predict will be so again in the next 18 months. And in classic neocon style, the “right” answer to those litmus tests is almost always more hawkish chest-thumping, rejection of any deals or negotiations, accusations of appeasement and retreat, higher military spending, and so on – what Daniel Larison once aptly called “omidirectional belligerence.” 

To my mind, this is reckless and arrogant, the sort of “exceptionalist” imperiousness that much of the world finds so fatiguing about Americans. But it is also politically feasible in the Middle East, because America's opponents there are so weak.

Yes, ISIS is terrifying and an Iran with a nuclear weapon is unnerving. And certainly the forces of Islamism across the region espouse values deeply antithetical to our own. In that sense, they pose a serious, long-term philosophic challenge to liberal modernity. But all the actors in the region – state and non-state – are actually quite weak. GDPs are small; militaries are weak and shot-through with cronyism; states are fragile with highly illegitimate 'institutions'; many governments barely control their whole territories. And non-state actors, terrorist or otherwise, are even weaker challengers; for all their ideological-theological fire, Islamist groups have had a hard time actually building durable organizations, parties, and states. That Israel, a country of just eight million people, is considered the region's dominant military power signifies just how secure America is from the region's dangers.

In short, America enjoys the luxury of an enormous power buffer in the region, and that asymmetry creates the space for mischief making like that GOP Iran letter. The U.S. can absorb the costs of domestic irresponsibility and constitutional in-fighting, posture belligerently and abjure deals and negotiation, all because the costs are rather low (for the U.S.). Even were the US to bomb Iran, the conflict would be far from the U.S. homeland with a minimal (or at least not very visible) impact on most Americans. Indeed, the U.S. managed to fight an entire war in the Middle East that went horribly wrong and alienated much of the planet, yet without seriously jeopardizing its regional hegemony. That is astonishing asymmetric power.

None of this applies at all in Asia.

One of my greatest concerns for U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades is that this neocon “omnidirectional belligerence” will, in time, come to the Asia-Pacific. Neocon belligerence and recklessness are not feasible in Asia as they are in the Middle East, in Cuba or Venezuela, or even in responding to Putin. John McCain brought this type of thinking to Europe when he famously said “we are all Georgians now” after the 2008 Russian invasion. Russia's stagnant GDP and population made such talk more feasible.

But the game in Asia is in far more flux than in eastern Europe, and America's power advantage is thinner here than anywhere else. This means diplomacy and accommodation — the messy realpolitik of wheeling and dealing with regimes we may not always like, such as China – are more necessary. These are not traits neoconservatives excel at. Indeed, they damn them as “appeasement of evil” and so on.

But neocon high-handed moralism and American exceptionalism in this business-like region will fail spectacularly. Neoconservatism will make an enemy of China, permanently end the possibility of any nuclear deal with North Korea (unlikely to be sure, but that is for Seoul to work out, not the US), and frighten American allies and friends such as South Korea and Vietnam with the thought that the U.S.  is a war-monger.

No one wants a repeat of the Iraq war in North Korea or Southeast Asia. No one wants grandstanding, culturally-ignorant American exceptionalists lecturing the region about the “freedom agenda.” Much of Asia may share the neocon belief that democracy is good for the world, but the neoconservative means to that end – threats, moralistic self-congratulation, refusal to negotiate with “evil,” reckless use of force – will just provoke the Sino-U.S. Cold War everyone is worried about.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

TopicsChina RegionsAsia

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