Recap: A Community Conversation with Flashpoints Authors

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Recap: A Community Conversation with Flashpoints Authors

On March 31, 2015, Flashpoints authors spoke to Reddit’s /r/geopolitics community. Here are the highlights.

Recap: A Community Conversation with Flashpoints Authors
Credit: Flickr/ NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

On March 31, 2015, Flashpoints authors took part in an Ask Us Anything (AUA) conversation with Reddit.com’s /r/Geopolitics community. The following excerpts are questions and answers taken from that AUA. Flashpoints’s Ankit Panda, Franz-Stefan Gady, Robert Farley, Dingding Chen, and J. Michael Cole answered questions posed by community members. The excerpts from that conversation are divided by topic.

If you missed the opportunity to ask the Flashpoints authors your question, there’ll be chances in the future. Stay tuned!


/r/Geopolitics Community Member (GCM): How does India fit into the geopolitics, security and defense issues of the Asia-Pacific region over the next 10 years? Will the US-India security relationship continue to develop? What does the burgeoning China-Pakistan relationship mean for China-India relations?

Thanks again for doing this guys, I’ve enjoyed your work over at The Diplomat.

Ankit Panda (AP): The scope of your first question is pretty huge, but I’ll say that India will be a very important player for a variety of reasons. India is fascinating given its sheer size. It occupies a complicated position in Asia given its adherence to democratic values and historic interest in pursuing a semi-idealistic approach to international affairs. Of course, as Harsh Pant has noted on The Diplomat, Narendra Modi is turning a lot of this on its head (“this” being the legacy of Nehruvian non-alignment).

Just this past month, we saw Modi make a major move toward ensuring that the Indian Ocean remain ‘Indian’ in a more than nominal way. Modi additionally sees an important affinity between India and Japan (to be fair, the Strategic Global Partnership was launched during the previous Congress-led government), Asia’s largest and richest democracy. While India is concerned about China’s rise and many strategists in India are skeptical of China’s approach to the Sino-Indian border dispute, there is no question in the Modi government’s mind that India has much to gain through economic cooperation with China.

I think we’re also entering a particularly interesting time as far as U.S.-India relations goes. New Delhi isn’t quite stuck in a tug-of-war between the United States and the “global south” as it may have been in the past. I think the Modi and Obama administrations have found a pragmatic and mutually beneficial road map for Indo-U.S. relations. In recent history, the trajectory of India’s partnership with the United States has been upset by domestic opposition within India (for a macro case, see the difficulty with which the previous government passed the Indo-U.S. 123 Agreement, and for a micro case, see the fallout from the Devyani Khobragade incident). As far as the United States is concerned, it’s helpful that Modi and the BJP have a huge legislative presence right now. It’s been encouraging to see recent U.S.-India joint statements grow wider in their ambition when it comes to defense and security cooperation (if you’re interested in the details, take a look here and here).

On China and Pakistan: well, first of all, this isn’t a “burgeoning” relationship — it’s been around for a while. Second of all, I think India has started approaching China with this as an understood point. I think we’re starting to see New Delhi develop relations with Southeast Asian states, including South China Sea claimants such as Vietnam to create a bit of symmetry. It’ll be worth watching how India decides to play its cards in the South China Sea.

Franz-Stefan Gady (FSG): Indo-China relations: India is trying to counter China’s influence in Asia by fostering closer ties with the countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially in the field of naval cooperation, which adversely affects China’s position in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. There are a host of issues that could undermine closer Indo-Sino relations in the years to come: unresolved border issues, China-Pakistan relations, energy security, cyber-espionage, Tibet, India’s eastward expansion of its economic ties, and Myanmar, just to name a few examples where both countries’ interests are at variance.

However, both China and India are interested in peace in their respective peripheries and a “peaceful rise.” Both depend on each other for economic development.

US-India security relationship: India and the U.S. will neither enter into an embrace nor disengage. India’s foreign policy elite still very skeptical of US ambitions in the region.Part of this innate skepticism stems from the fact that India suspects it will be used as the United States’ shield to check Chinese ambitions and counterbalance Beijing’s influence in the region. I suspect that there will be very little change in the US-India relationship over the next decade.

China-PAK relations: I would say that Islamabad is a bit of a wild card for Beijing. China will benefit more from closer ties with India than Pakistan. Consequently, Beijing will not overplay its hand and get too close to PAK. One symbolic example for that is that China’s President ,Xi Jinping, who officially had been invited in January this year to attend Pakistan’s first military parade (after a seven-year suspension), was notably absent from the parade grounds.

North Korea and China

GCM: Last year China stopped repatriating North Korean escapees. What does this signal, if anything, of the current relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang?

Robert Farley (RF): There are plenty of indications that the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has grown tense in spots. The situation is complex; plenty of Chinese officials seem to feel some sense of obligation to North Korea, and there’s a generalized sympathy with respect to shared anti-American and anti-Japanese attitudes. But North Korea also remains an expensive client for Beijing, with the potential to disrupt its emerging trade and political relationship with South Korea.

With respect to the escapees specifically, it’s an administrative and economic pain to have to sort through the North Korean expat community in Manchuria and hunt down the ones that North Korea wants back. I’m actually not sure how much the Chinese have slowed this down; accounts seem to differ. But forced repatriation was certainly proving to be a growing embarrassment for Beijing, and perhaps one that the CCP wasn’t willing to endure.

GCM: All of that being said, where do you see the China-North Korea relationship going in the next ten years?

Dingding Chen (DC): China, under president Xi Jinping, has already adopted a tough approach toward North Korea mainly because NK’s behaviors are now hurting China’s national interests. This trend will continue for the next ten years; but China will not allow NK to collapse.

Russia and China

GCM: As China and Russia become increasingly isolated, do you view increased cooperation between the two as realistic?

Considering China’s current reliance on Middle Eastern Oil and the likelihood of Russia losing stakes in the European market, would China feel safe staking its industry on Russian Oil?

[Note to readers: Comments may be edited after the fact to clarify one’s question. Here is one such instance.] Edit: Robert and Franz make good points below about my use of the term “isolated”. I didn’t mean economic isolation but I can see how my comment directly compared them to the “isolation” being felt by Russia.

FSG: Good question! Despite the recent Sino-Russian rapprochement, tensions between the two powers remain. For example, China is actively replacing Russia in Central Asia as the principal trading partner of the region. In 2012, all Central Asian nations –with the exception of Uzbekistan- were trading more with China than Russia, a fact that painfully illustrates Russia’s relative decline vis-à-vis the new economic superpower. Russia has also – in direct opposition to Beijing- supported Vietnam regarding energy exploration in the South China Sea and stepped up military cooperation with the Southeast Asian state. Equally, Russia has been silent on other territorial disputes involving China in the South China Sea refusing to choose sides. Likewise, Vladimir Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union is meant to balance Chinese power as much as it is meant to balance NATO’s influence in Eastern Europe.

AP: To add to Franz’s comment, I’d point out that China’s forays into Central Asia have been greatly abetted by the collapse in value of the ruble. In the short-term, several Central Asian states will feel biting economic pain given their reliance on ruble remittances. In the medium- and long-term, I think last year’s economic events in Russia will accelerate the growth of Chinese influence in the region. I’ve treated this issue in more detail over at The Diplomat: here and here.

RF: Endorsing Franz’s comments; also, I’m not sure how accurate it is to describe China as “isolated.” Despite tensions along its maritime borders, China is still the key economic player in the region, and there’s been no effort to economically or politically shutout China in the same manner as we’ve seen with Russia.

AP: I’ll back Rob’s dissent on describing China as “isolated.” When China is excluded from international organizations for its behavior and has economic sanctions imposed on it by states representing over a third of world GDP, I’ll reconsider.

GCM: Jumping onto Mr Gady’s original response since it raised some good points. I’m wondering what your views are on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in regards to this increased push by China into the Central Asian states. I know China primarily wants the SCO to be trade/economics based (or at least equal to the regional security aspect) but it seems that it has been facing opposition towards greater trade integration from Russia and the Central Asian states. Do you think the SCO will be the vehicle to push this, or is China better off sticking with bilateral agreements?

RF: Bilateral. The SCO is more of an opportunity to preen than a functional, meaningful international organization.

[r/Geopolitics Community Members did not feel that was a fair criticism, here is the subsequent discussion.]

GCM: As it was mentioned Russia has interests in getting closer to China, as it is undergoing international isolation and sanctions. However China seems to have abandoned its low profile policy to a more proactive stance, with incursions into Russia’s backyard (Arctic, Central Asia). With initiatives such as the 1B1R for instance, do you think that China and Russia will be complementary or more likely to compete in Central Asia? And if so, can the two powers compete at a regional scale, while maintaining a global alliance?

AP: I’ll address the point on Central Asia: I think Russia and China can co-exist in Central Asia — each has a different set of competitive advantages. With former Soviet states, Russia has cultural and linguistic influence that China simply lacks. Russia additionally has the advantage of being seen as the apex destination for outward looking youth in the region. The collapse of the ruble and the subsequent remittances crisis, if managed well, will keep Russia as the top recipient of the dividends of people-to-people relations with Central Asian states.

China’s competitive advantage in the region is on the side of infrastructure, development, and financing. Chinese capital and investment will be important drivers of growth in Central Asia. China also has an element of self-interest in approaching Central Asia that it lacks with its overseas investment activities in Latin America and Africa (for example). The stability and security of Central Asian states has a very direct effect on the stability and security of Xinjiang. I think two institutions to watch if you’re interested in this issue are the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, one led by China and one led by Russia, respectively.

China and Taiwan

GCM: How likely is Taiwan reuniting with China in the next thirty years in your views?

J. Michael Cole (JMC): The $1 million question! First off, let’s get the terms right: Taiwan would “unify” with China, not “reunify,” as two entities that were never united cannot reunite (Taiwan was never part of the PRC).

Based on my intimate observations of Taiwanese society (I’ve been a resident of Taiwan for the past decade), I would be extremely surprised if Taiwanese agreed to become part of the PRC…and that’s not only a matter of the CCP being authoritarian. They have their own identity and way of life — yes, inspired by Chinese culture, but also by several others, including Japanese — and their desire to become part of a country of 1.4 billion people is about as high as that of Canadians becoming part of the U.S.

Now don’t get me wrong: This does not mean that Taiwanese are not open to engaging China, investing in China, studying in China or working there. The majority are in favour of normalization. But that should not be confused with a desire for unification. Trends are all pointing in the direction of greater identification as Taiwanese, which with the emergence of new generations I’m convinced will continue in that direction. China has yet to propose a model that appeals to Taiwanese — DPP and KMT voters. The “one country, two systems” formula is stillborn, and Beijing probably fears it cannot offer a Federalist system to Taiwan lest doing spark similar demands in other parts of China (if Taiwan, why not us, they’d rightly ask).

I therefore expect more of the same — the status quo — unless the PRC decides to use force to resolve the matter, at which point what we now have is annexation, which would likely quickly descend into protracted low-intensity warfare and an ugly pacification campaign (claims that Taiwanese wouldn’t resist are largely the product of PRC political warfare and propaganda).

So “peaceful” unification in the next 30 years? I think it’s unlikely. As for use of force, that will be contingent on the regime in Beijing and how patient it is. Of course, we could one day see a leader emerge in Beijing who would recognize the futility of trying to convince 23 million people that they are not who they think they are and abandon China’s claims on Taiwan. I’d be the first one to enlist him/her for the Nobel Peace Prize.

GCM: The technological military edge that Taiwan has had over the mainland is rapidly closing. How can Taiwan continue to develop its defense capacity without provoking the mainland?

FSG: Perhaps, my more informed colleagues can add to this.

The military buildup by both sides is primarily a bargaining chip for the political table. Both sides know that an amphibious assault by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is hardly feasible militarily. Amphibious assaults are among the most complex military operations, and are more dependent on the element of surprise than any other military undertaking. Military analysts concur that the most likely spot for an amphibious assault against Taiwan would be the coastal region between Tung-Hsiao and San-Wan. The rest of the island is entirely unsuitable for the establishment of a beachhead. PLA’s air superiority would have to be established for days, if not weeks, preceding any invasion with the simultaneous clearing of any enemy submarines and surface ships and the elimination of U.S. satellites overflying the regions on numerous occasions each day. However, I believe that it is not in the strategic culture of the PLA to ever risk such a gamble.

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

GCM: What does [Australia] joining the the China-led AIIB mean for [U.S.-Australia] relations?

AP: Nothing significant IMO. The U.S. mishandled the launch of the AIIB and made matters worse by publicly rebuking its ally, the UK, for sensibly deciding to seek influence from the inside. The Australian government joined while noting that there was area for improvement when it came to the bank’s governance and compliance standards. In a sense, the U.S. has less to grief Australia about than it does for its Western European allies that chose to join the AIIB. In national interest terms, it was perhaps more urgent for Australia to join the AIIB given its proximity to China and Asian economies than the Western European founders.

GCM: How will [Russia’s] decision to join the AIIB possibly influence relations between it and China?

AP: That’s an easy one: it’ll be a good thing for China-Russia relations. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov seemed pretty confident when he said that he didn’t think AIIB was a serious threat to the extent World Bank-IMF order which is also telling. Russia is interested in keeping its relationship with China on a positive footing so joining the AIIB makes sense.

Chinese Silk Road

GCM: Good afternoon. Why didn’t the first route of the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt pass by Russia, and what made China (or Russia) change its mind?

AP: It’s worth emphasizing that a huge part of the Silk Road Economic Belt (and, similarly, China’s Maritime Silk Road initiative) is based on the idea of improving trans-national transport infrastructure between China and other countries. Central Asia, given its historic lack of developed infrastructure, is a logical focus for China. Additionally, as some Chinese commentators have noted, land-based commercial ties to China’s immediate west are a “hedge” for Beijing’s over-reliance on sea-based commerce (it goes without saying that China is far from “secure” in its control of the waters inside the first island chain). If we acknowledge an economic hedging strategy on China’s part, then it would make sense for Beijing to diversify its portfolio, so to speak. Hence, we see initiatives like “March West,” incorporating the entirety of Central Asia into China’s economic radar. Russia, naturally, isn’t excluded. Its economy and level of development warrant that it is treated differently by Chinese policymakers (more as an even-footed partner).

Indian Subcontinent

GCM: Hey, this is a fairly stupid question, but: For quite a while “Akhand Bharat” (A greater India comprising of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and in some cases, Myanmar) was a dream of loony RSS people. I personally think such a case is impossible, given that the Indian, Pakistani and Bangla identities have become entrenched- however, what do you guys have to say about this?

AP: Not a stupid question at all. There’s actually a very interesting origin to all the contemporary “Akhand Bharat” sentiment (which is, admittedly, on the fringe as you note). If you’re interested more in the origin, I’ve addressed part of that here. Realistically, I don’t think we’ll see any serious reconfiguration of the post-colonial South Asian nation-states anytime soon (one exception being the fate of Kashmir).

To read the original discussion in full, please visit the original thread at reddit.com/r/geopolitics.