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

The Buzz

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

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

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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

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China Sends Most Lethal Bombers Near Taiwan, Philippines

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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.

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Did India's Special Forces Just Send 'A Message' to China and Pakistan?

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Early on Tuesday morning, 70 Indian special forces crossed into Myanmar from two north-eastern Indian states, Manipur and Nagaland, and killed more than a dozen militants of two groups, the SCN(K) and the Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup (KYKL), that had ambushed and killed 18 Indian soldiers a week earlier.

Does this portend the new, more aggressive era of Indian counter-terrorism—and perhaps even covert operations—that many anticipated from Prime Minister Narendra Modi? While it's true that the speed of the Indian response is novel, some questionable lessons are being drawn in the breathless press coverage. This isn't helped by the fact that Indian accounts are presently mired in inconsistencies and contradictions.

The Indian television channel NDTV reports that the operation began at 3am, while the Indian Express puts it four hours later. NDTV says the Indian Army sent a note to its counterparts in Myanmar “minutes before ops began” and that the Indian ambassador met a minister in Myanmar only later in the morning, when government offices opened. It concludes: “this was a solo operation...not just on the ground, but also in the planning and implementation”.

But there's a whiff of official spin about this chronology. The Express' sources claim special forces were in “constant communication with Myanmar authorities”, and Praveen Swami notes that India received “high-level clearance” from Myanmar on Monday; India Today corroborates this. Most implausibly of all, Myanmar itself insists that it all took place on Indian soil. NDTV says casualties were estimated at 50 but could be as high as 100 or more and The Hindu agrees, while the Express puts it at just 14-18. The Hindustan Times reports that helicopter gunships provided support, and has printed a photograph of an Mi-35 reportedly flying towards Myanmar, though this detail isn't found anywhere else.

Conflicting details are inevitable in the aftermath of any such event, but it also seems that the Indian Government is furiously spinning the operation to its advantage. It is the same dynamic that resulted in shifting narratives on the U.S. raid against Osama bin Laden in 2011. NDTV is careful to note that India's National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who has cultivated a swashbuckling persona in the press, and the Army Chief both personally 'camped' in Manipur, and that the Prime Minster's Office “monitored the sensitive operation in real time”. Given that the operation seems to have gone smoothly, it's naturally in the Government's interest to play up the risks (which were undoubtedly real) and the personal involvement of senior figures.

However, some also seem to be putting an even bolder spin on this: that it represents, according to India Today, “new rules of engagements to deal with terrorism and...Pakistan”, and, for NDTV, “a crucial message to China”.

These conclusions reflect decades of pent-up frustration with successive governments' unwillingness—prudent for some, pusillanimous for others—to impose a serious cost on Pakistan for its sponsorship of terrorist groups. But the extrapolation is tenuous and dangerous.

Raids conducted with the foreknowledge, express permission, and—though it's been denied—assistance of the neighboring state (say, with up-to-date maps or other intelligence) are entirely different to raids in non-permissive territory against hostile states. As Sushant Singh notes, India carried out joint cross-border operations in Myanmar in 1995 and in 2006, as well as in Bhutan in 2003. India and Myanmar reached an agreement for cross-border access in 2010 and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj raised the issue during a visit last August. It goes without saying that none of these conditions hold in the case of either Pakistan or China.

For a year, this Government has portrayed itself as breaking with the timidity of its predecessor: prepared to escalate shelling on the Line of Control with Pakistan, take covert action where necessary, and assert itself on the international stage. In this environment, it's easy to see how a single cross-border assault assisted by a neighbor is being hailed as Entebbe or Abbotabad. In truth, India's Special Forces capability has a long way to go.

In their book on the subject, retired Lieutenant General PC Katoch and journalist Saikat Datta note that India has over 20,000 special forces but 'one tenth' of U.S. capabilities, as a result of inadequate officer numbers, training, intelligence, language skills, air support, and a lack of centralized command. In another recent paper, George Perkovich and Toby Dalton cite Indian experts, including retired officials, who acknowledge that “India does not now have the capability to combine special operations in Pakistan with precision air support”, notwithstanding highly localized raids across the Line of Control.

Finally, India's foreign and security policy machinery needs to get better at handling these things. The Indian Army's own spokesman, perhaps hoping to avoid embarrassing Myanmar, assiduously avoided any suggestion that India had crossed the border. His effort was quickly undone by bombastic tweets from a junior minister in charge of broadcasting, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who gleefully tweeted that Indian forces had gone “deep into another country”, promised that “we will strike at a place and at a time of out choosing”, and declared the raid “a message for all countries, including Pakistan”. For good measure, he threw in the off-message hashtag #ManipurRevenge. Handling public diplomacy to an over-caffeinated and tone-deaf minister is rather amateurish signaling—the substitution of quiet professionalism with jingoistic hyperbole.

As the dust settles, the Indian Government would do well to take stock of the various lessons – both encouraging and cautionary – that might be drawn from the past few days.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: Creative Commons. 

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