In an unusual development – and 37 years after the 1979 military invasion of Afghanistan – the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan openly questioned the presence of US bases in Afghanistan. During an interview, Zamir Kabulov asked why America must have access to so many bases as its ongoing presence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern. In his categorical Putin tone, the envoy announced, “Russia will never tolerate this”.
This observation acquires special significance against the backdrop of ongoing developments in the region. There are four reasons for this which are particularly noteworthy.
One, Moscow’s latest non-confrontational diplomatic manoeuvres against Washington and its expanded and impactful role in the Middle East suggests Putin’s Russia has re-energised itself for a leadership role globally – and especially within Asia. The latest example was Putin’s almost pleasantly shocking response towards the children of American diplomats by inviting them to his Christmas party and not ordering their parents out of Russia after Obama threw out many Russian diplomats from Washington on spying charges.
Two, China’s intention to stay on course in its path to becoming a global power was demonstrated in its handling of the South China Sea issue. Beijing’s sent an unqualified year-end message to the world – and especially to its competitors including the US, Japan and Taiwan – that its plans to move ahead with consolidating its strategic interests in the South China Sea are irreversible. In the last days of 2016, China opted for power projection in the disputed zones of the South China Sea. Interestingly, it was the Chinese-owned, Soviet-built aircraft carrier Liaoning that led the Chinese warships past Taiwan and into the South China Sea. It was a six-vessel group. Such moves are part of Beijing’s signal to countries such as the US and Japan that any military pressure will result in military escalation by China.
The build-up of China’s military capacity lies at the core of Beijing’s strategy of producing a counterpunch in case of US or Japanese military pressure. Transforming its navy from a green-water to a blue-water navy is critical for China to protect its economic interests.
In the pursuit of its expanding global interest, Beijing remains dismissive of all diplomatic and legal pressures. For example, in July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea. China was reprimanded for illegally occupying maritime areas of Spratly Islands, for its land reclamation projects and the construction of artificial islands.
Washington claims that – based on images from its US navy surveillance aircraft – Chinese dredging vessels can be seen in the waters around the disputed area. Beijing lays claims over 90 percent of the South China Sea. An estimated $4.5 trillion worth of ship-borne trade goes through this area. There are also immense, but untapped, gas and oil reserves in the area. While China stakes its claim to the region based on the post Japan surrender line it drew in 1947, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the maritime region. China continues construction work on the outpost and reefs across the South China Sea.
Beijing dismissed the court’s award to Manila on the basis of questionable jurisdiction. Accordingly, China’s two-track response to securing its strategic objectives continued. While it continued to take steps to militarily fortify its hold over the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping combined hard talk and with soft offers. China’s “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” in the seas would not be affected by the ruling, which declared large areas of the sea to be neutral international waters or the exclusive economic zones of other countries. Yet, the president insisted that China was still “committed to resolving disputes” with its neighbours. The Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are contested by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
At the forefront of operationalising Chinese global ascendency lies China’s economic and security architecture. The country’s guaranteed access to the maritime region of the South China Sea is an integral part of the architecture.
Three, Beijing and Moscow have increasingly sought to keep Washington out of Asian security by emphasising that Asean and SCO member countries must play the central role in building regional security. In fact, according to SCO Secretary-General Rashid Alimov – who was speaking at the 2017 SCO summit – an updated SCO-Asean memorandum of cooperation is likely to be signed.
Many questions arise from this. First, how far can India counter this trend through borrowed power via its partnership with the distant US? Second, can the Beijing-Moscow alliance, working for the Asian continent’s architecture for progress, security and dispute resolution, be undermined by Delhi’s solo hegemonic designs and its relations with the distant and hitherto disruptive Washington? Interestingly, the most fundamental question remains whether there will be continuity or change in Washington’s global engagement pattern of the last several decades. The answer to this question will also directly affect Delhi’s capacity to undermine the Beijing-Moscow partnership to lead Asian ascendency on home-grown turf.
Four, Washington’s role and influence has become increasingly marginalised in dispute resolution within Asia. The proliferation of power centres has led to international dispute resolution mechanisms, including the UN becoming increasing marginalised. Its corollary is the rise of dispute mechanisms offered by regional organisations like Asean and SCO. For example, in the case of the territorial claims in the South China Sea Asean does not take sides. Its instruments – the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) – have been developed to enable Asean to promote stability and security in the sea.
After Beijing’s rejection of the Hague-based international tribunal Hague’s judgment against China’s historical claims on disputed areas of South China Sea, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi presented a four-point proposal at the September 2016 Asean meeting to fast-track the COC consultations. This included developing a framework for the COC by mid-2017. The Asean secretary-general welcomed the proposal and Beijing’s assurance “to continue to actively engage China toward an amicable solution of the issue of the South China Sea”. Philippines, which took the Spratly Islands dispute to the Hague – and still remained engaged with China via the Asean platform and welcomed Beijing’s willingness to continue dialogue via Asean framework – underscores the relevance of regional forums as mechanisms for peaceful dispute resolution as opposed to international forums.
With Beijing’s strategic build-up efforts in the South China Sea, its diplomatic engagement and active economic cooperation with Asean and other regional countries, leave Washington and Tokyo with limited options to counter China. Similarly, with Putin’s Russia flexing its diplomatic and quasi-military muscles across Asia, Europe and the Middle East and fixing path-breaking relationships with Pakistan, Washington will have limited space for its military and political manoeuvres.
In the Asian reset, Pakistan may be on the right side of history. Islamabad’s relations with Beijing and Moscow indicate this clearly. But that is not enough.
Whether Pakistan has demonstrated its capacity to take full advantage of its current positioning is the critical question. The answer is not encouraging.
The writer is a senior journalist.