James Holmes

James Holmes


This week in your blog, you discussed Japan and Taiwan’s recent fisheries agreement for the area around the Senkakus islands. Could such a move push Beijing to seek a compromise with Tokyo or increase tensions even more? Do you see Japan and Taiwan increasing ties in the future?

As I posited in the blog, the agreement was a deft move on the diplomatic front. Not only did Taipei and Tokyo show how mature powers behave, but they made Beijing’s conduct look immature by contrast. Territory is territory. Civilized states simply don’t grab islands or waters from sovereign equals, any more than they would invade across land borders to seize land. They negotiate their differences or submit them to some international forum to adjudicate. The deal is bad for the image China is trying to project. That could give Chinese leaders pause.

Over the long haul, alas, I can’t see how the pact would push China to compromise. Compromise on what? The situation is zero-sum. Japan has something, and China wants it. Tokyo will win, or Beijing will. Furthermore, Beijing has connected its policy toward the Senkakus to sovereignty, something on which a nation with China’s past has a hard time compromising. In effect it has painted itself into a corner, perhaps deliberately so. Negotiators often bind themselves to hardline positions in public, precisely to let the other side know they can’t back away from their maximal demands and that the other side had better capitulate. It’s rather like negotiating tactics in labor disputes: union leaders oftentimes go straight to absolute commitments to signal resolve. Better to take Beijing at its word about the extreme alarm with which it views the fishing accord, and about stepping up its presence around the archipelago.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

To flip things around, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Japan and Taiwan expand on the new arrangement, perhaps with a supplemental deal covering the extraction of natural resources from the seabed. I hope they will. When you’re the weaker party to a competition, as both Japan and Taiwan are vis-à-vis China, you take your allies where you find them. Politics makes strange bedfellows!

There have been rumors concerning a possible deal where Russia would sell to China advanced diesel electric Amur-class submarines. If the deal actually goes through, how will this benefit the PLAN in the long run?

This has been a strange story. The deal was announced, then un-announced, and seems to be in limbo until, maybe, it’s re-announced. The Amur is an improved Kilo-class boat, one of the better diesel-electric submarines around. It carries weapons the U.S. Navy worries about, such as wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. The PLA Navy already operates Kilos, so an Amur buy would be compatible with that segment of the existing inventory. Buying a few would let the PLA Navy augment its fleet’s numbers at a time when the U.S. Navy is coming to see undersea warfare as its chief edge in the strategic competition with China, and when the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force is undertaking a modest expansion of its own submarine fleet. Numbers count.

There’s also the technological dimension. The Amur features air-independent propulsion, helping it evade detection for longer periods of time; ten vertical launch cells for firing anti-ship missiles; improved quieting beyond the Kilo, which is already stealthy; and various other improvements around the margins. And again, it will be interoperable with the existing flotilla of Chinese Kilos. In short, it looks like a great acquisition for the PLA Navy, assuming it lives up to its hype—always a question when evaluating complex engineering systems. And, lastly, it is possible if not probable that Chinese engineers will study the technology to improve future boats of Chinese design. There’s a fringe benefit for Beijing.

Finally, Russia for some time has been selling India various pieces of military hardware. Many have pointed to cooperation on the BRAHMOS missile system as a source of even greater cooperation and joint development. Some have speculated that the United States should play a greater role in India’s military advancements in the coming decades — such as offering the F-35 or maybe various forms of naval technology. What are your thoughts?

Best I can tell as an outsider, BRAHMOS has been a real success story for multinational weapons development. But that was a rather compact collaboration between Russia and India. You also mention the F-35 program, some of whose travails have come from involving many players from many countries in designing, developing, and manufacturing that aircraft. It’s tough enough to integrate hardware built by different manufacturers within a single country; imagine how the interoperability problems multiply when you factor in linguistic, cultural, and political differences. You’re building frictions into the system—for good reasons, no doubt, but they still slow down the wheels of progress.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that New Delhi would probably be wise to simplify its procurements—to narrow them to the smallest possible number of supplier countries and firms. A hodgepodge of equipment entails a hodgepodge of problems. Naturally, I think American hardware makes the best fit for India’s needs. But Indian memories run long, and they remember things like Washington’s reluctance to supply the Indian military with spare parts and technical support for U.S.-built weaponry during past conflicts. To hedge against future cutoffs, it makes sense for New Delhi to diversify its portfolio or to purchase from capitals like Moscow that have no such qualms about arms transfers. Getting India to buy American in a big way may remain a tough sell given lingering concerns about politics, not to mention the steep cost of U.S. hardware relative to the Russias of the world.

A historical note: emerging powers’ reluctance to put all of their eggs in one basket is nothing new. For instance, China’s Qing Dynasty was negotiating naval purchases with Bethlehem Steel, other American firms, and European manufacturers when revolution swept away that dynasty in 1911. Indeed, the ink was still drying on an accord with the United States. It appears to be a natural thing to court favor with multiple supplier countries, despite the inefficiencies integrating unlike equipment entails.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief