By Gen. Shashi Asthana*
The G-20 Summit 2018 will be remembered for extraordinary large number of bilateral and trilateral meetings, which seem to be even more significant than the main purpose of the meet. There are some high profile bilateral meetings like US – China and US – Russia (Scheduling of which has seen many flip-flops) which are very significant in context of Trade-War or Ukraine crisis. The two trilateral meetings involving US-Japan-India and China-Russia-India are also seen to be very significant because of centrality of Indian position in both the meetings. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the world is that the world has got interlinked so much as never before, hence even bilateral relations between global powers impact the world directly or indirectly.
When a large number of countries including US allies, strategic and trade partners joined AIIB, against the wishes of US, it was quite evident that a time has come that many countries will like to have alternate sources of funding other than west dominated IMF or Japan dominated ADB and will follow their own national interest. Similarly when China exhibited aggressive design of converting feature and atolls to artificial islands, with a view to have South China Sea as ‘Chinese lake’ based on unilateral interpretation of history ignoring international laws, UNCLOS and decision of ICJ, a group of democratic countries huddled together to form QUAD with a potential to counter balance such moves, which have possibility of obstructing global trade and exploitation of global commons. The Russian aggression westwards post Crimea, brought many western countries together resulting heavy sanctions on Russia, (followed by the recent standoff with Ukraine, Martial Law in some parts of Ukraine and the criticality continues. The Western opposition and sanctions was instrumental in pushing Russia nearer to Beijing. The international relationships and strategic interests of most countries in the interlinked world of today are so interwoven, that it is difficult to count countries only in one grouping; hence many new issue based groupings have emerged in last few decades.
Are Global Powers pushing everyone to Strategic Balancing?
In the exuberance of pursuing ‘America First’ policy, in last few years US has been highly critical of some of its allies, strategic and trade partners, whenever they did not follow a course which was of interest to America. In some cases it used threatening gestures, while some others were put under sanctions. The policy got a major jolt, when they threatened everyone to support their decision of shifting embassy to Jerusalem, but many countries junked the threat and voted as per their own perception. A similar issue came up earlier, when the last US President got all Head of States of ASEAN countries together to discuss South China Sea issue and wanted a joint statement, condemning Chinese actions, but those countries did oblige. Pulling out of Paris accord for climate change, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP are some more examples when all the ‘Friends of US’ are not on the same page, and decided to continue with it even without US. Pulling out of nuclear deal with Russia is under global criticism, as it could trigger fresh arms race and a dangerous one, although US has some strategic logic to do so in American interest. The last G-7 Summit was not a pleasant experience for US allies due to alleged self centered economic approach of US. The NATO allies are also relatively lesser confident of US backing and keep waiting for next surprise from US Administration. Under these circumstances, Is US Concept of ‘With US’ or ‘Against US’ is outdated in Interlinked World?
On the other hand Chinese after announcing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, with elevation of President Xi Jinping from ‘Chairman of everything’ to ‘Core’ and ‘Leader for life’, exhibited its expeditionary design starting from South China Sea to land grabbing in Indian Ocean. With its fast growth it tried to showcase its methodology of governance better than democratic model. Its ‘Incremental Encroachment Strategy’ in Doklam as well as South China Sea exhibited its ambitions exceeding beyond peaceful growth to the arena of global strategic dominance; hence it started facing opposition from a group of democratic countries in various forms like formulation of QUAD and other groupings. Interestingly most of Chinese neighbors did not buy its method of governance and some of them went democratic in recent past, while maintaining good relations with it. In case of Russia also, we find Germany, a US ally drawing gas from them. Russia and China helping out North Korea with fuel and essentialities immediately after Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim. Russia a strategic partner of India supplying military hardware to Pakistan and many other countries. A cross pollination of relations is therefore quite evident.
Analysing the cases of three global powers above, a time has come when most countries want to manage their international relations as per their own national interest, and do not want their strategic choices to be dictated by others. The strategic autonomy is quite dear to every sovereign country. It is also a fact that the world today is much more interlinked; hence issue based relationships is increasing. In context of the above let me analyze few cases justifying the ‘Compulsion of Strategic Balancing’ in international dynamics.
Japan’s Insecurity and Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China followed by meeting Indian Counterpart
During Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China on the 40th anniversary of the ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China’ hardly any issues of divergences was discussed. It was looked as an effort to ‘Fostering Mutual Political Trust’ and ‘Cooperation and Confidence Building in Maritime and Security Affairs’. Beyond good optics, It can be seen as an effort to balance out/reset relations with China, and a messaging to Uncle Sam, about independence in foreign policy formulation of Japan. Immediately after this first visit to Beijing since 2012, Prime Minister Abe hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a resort near Mount Fuji for a luncheon Sunday, just a day after returning from talks with the leader of China. While the leaders may call India-Japan partnership having been strengthened as a ‘special strategic and global partnership,’ but beyond the optics, it can be termed as an effort to balance relations between China and India as well. India would perhaps be looking to move forward in convergences, and need not be concerned of Sino -Japan engagement because India and Japan have hardly any issues of divergences. The balancing/resetting by Japan in international relations was again exhibited, by the fact that Japanese PM seems to be “determined” to wrap up talks toward peace treaty based on 1956 declaration with Putin, stipulating the return of two of four northern islands by Russia to Japan, while retaining claim on all four. The self confidence of Japan in balancing act between US, China, Russia and India is noticeable.
South Korean bonhomie with North Korea
South Korea despite being apprehensive of dangerous arsenal of North Korea, continues to be an ally of US. Deployment of THAAD, military exercises with US forces, have caused great anxiety not only in North Korea, but in China and Russia as well. Despite heavy sanctions on North Korea, it continued with its nuclear and missile tests. When President Trump started giving confusing signals of ‘America First’ and asking allies to pay for their security, South Korea was inclined to attempt peace in Korean Peninsula and making it nuclear free. It was successful in seemingly impossible diplomatic exercise of getting together Kim and President Trump together for a summit. As an analyst, I do not count the summit anything beyond optics, as nothing worthwhile has changed in nuclear and long range missiles capabilities of North Korea as well as UN sanctions, but South Korea has improved its relations with North considerably applying the theory of strategic balance. North and South Korea had Summits, exhibiting lot of bonhomie, decided to field one sports team under single flag, started people to people contact, and South Korea started helping North Korea with essential humanitarian needs, where China and Russia joined in to start business as usual with North Korea, immediately after Singapore Summit. The optics of keeping missiles and nukes away from North Korean parade does not mean that it will really destroy the only leverage it has, which is making US talk to him, and condemning Rouhani and Assad, looking for regime change there. Some symbolic destruction of few testing sites by North Korea and destruction of few posts along demilitarized zone does not mean that South has full confidence over North Korea but it clearly indicates that South Korea is balancing/resetting relations between them.
India’s Strategic behavior: Is it different than Balancing/Resetting International relations?
Post Wuhan visit of Prime Minister Modi to China it is being alleged by western media that India has perhaps drifted towards China. In my opinion there is hardly any worthwhile change in Indian strategic behavior. India has a set of convergences and divergences of interests with major global players namely China, USA and Russia. India has so far been able to keep these relations exclusive of each other; hence has been able to successfully manage an independent foreign relationship without any bias. In the turbulent complex environment of today, our convergences and divergences have started impacting each other. India’s differences with China on certain aspects of Sino-Pak nexus, use of global commons in South China Sea, its adventurism in Indian Ocean, and obstruction to Indian entry in NSG can also be viewed as convergence of interests with US. India’s differences with US on trade, tariff, and CAATSA in context of Russia can be seen as convergence of interests with China The silver lining is that US being our strategic partner will like to have well equipped Indian Forces to balance China and Indian connectivity to Afghanistan, in case Pakistan does not serve its strategic interest. The US waiver on Chabahar port and connectivity to Afghanistan, as well import of Iranian oil for next six month is a welcome step by US towards its strategic partner India.
After Indian expression to expand the scope and dimension of QUAD, opening it up to other affected countries, there is a general feeling amongst other QUAD members that India is perhaps getting softer towards China in progressing QUAD agenda. The reality is that India has an independent foreign policy. In Indo-Pacific, it stands with US, Japan and Australia in checking Chinese encroachment of global common like South China Sea, stands for seamless movement in international water and rule based order. Interestingly none of the QUAD members have common unsettled land borders with China. In land frontier and combating proxy war, India has to fight its own battle with some help from friendly countries including equipment from Russia, Israel, France to name a few, besides Indian friends from QUAD, hence it has to tackle relationship with China in a different manner than other members of QUAD. India therefore has to maintain harmonious relations with all its friends and neighbors to pursue its national interest. Despite such complexities, the silver lining is that the US, as well as China want better relations with India and vice versa. Russia also will not like to give up the largest purchaser of military hardware and a strategic partnership which stood the test of time even in ‘Heated Cold War’ era, hence, with smart diplomacy, India should be able to manage an independent foreign policy in current global environment. The number of bilateral and trilateral meetings attended by India clearly explains the balancing diplomatic exercises carried out by India, as per its National interest. Indian participation in two significant trilateral meetings namely US-Japan-India and China-Russia-India signifies the centrality of India. It clearly indicates the efforts required to balance out relations with two separate groupings which have wide gap in perceptions.
Unilateralism is Outdated/Impractical Concept
There is a growing opinion that US needs to revise its policy of sanctions and CAATSA. The analysis suggests that President Trump’s reintroduction of sanctions on Iran,(with many of its allies still honoring Iran Nuclear Deal), as well as further push on CAATSA (without modification) on countries trading with Russia might edge US towards its own diplomatic/ strategic and economic isolation in the long run . The ICJ decision on 03 October 2018 ordering US to remove any restrictions on the export of humanitarian goods and services to Iran to some extent shows that the world may not always buy US narrative on sanctions. Similarly Chinese aggressive stance in South China Sea will continue to bring resistance in different forms by collective efforts of affected parties, and its purse diplomacy will not work everywhere. Ongoing Trade War, strengthening of Taiwan and military posturing in South China Sea are indicators which will discomfort China. In interlinked world interactions with all countries wherever their interests converge is the order of the day. Japanese trade with China, visit of Prime Minister Abe to China followed by visit of Prime Minister Modi and Countries pursuing relations with Saudi Arabia despite CIA revelations are some examples of this new normal in future. It is also expected that in a multilateral world of today, no one country will be able to dictate the strategic choices of others or force any country not to act in its national interest in future. It also proves a point that any country, which thinks that it can rule the world all by itself, is sadly mistaken in the future world, which is overly interlinked.
About the author:
*Gen. Shashi Asthana is a veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in international fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst; he is currently the Chief Instructor of USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy