I recently returned from the seventh Xiangshan Forum held in Beijing (October 10-12) with three take-aways. Conceptualised, organised and supported by the People’s Liberation Army, serving military practitioners from 59 countries assembled here to discuss ways to enhance security dialogue and cooperation for the new model of international relations, first proposed by Chinese President Hu Jintao to US President Barack Obama in June 2012, and moved forward by President and commander-in-chief of PLA’s joint operations command, Xi Jinping.
The two big delegations from Russia and Pakistan were led by the Russian Deputy Defence Minister, Anatoly Antonov, and Pakistan’s Chief of General staff (a front-runner to succeed the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif), Lt Gen Zubair Mahmood Hayat. The two poorly represented nations’ delegations were from the United States and India led by Maj Gen Frederick Padilla, president, National Defense College and Maj Gen Amardeep Bhardwaj from the Integrated Defence Staff. The delegations’ size and profile were suggestive of the tug-of-war between the existing model led by Washington, DC, and the new model proposed by Beijing and backed by Moscow.
My first takeaway was that Beijing won the opening and perhaps the difficult round between the two models represented in the South China Sea dispute. At the sixth Xiangshan Forum held in October 2015 Beijing was defensive about its actions in the SCS. While vowing not to dismantle its infrastructure over disputed territories, China’s powerful (next only to Xi Jinping) Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Fan Changlong, had ruled out “use of force even when the issues affect our sovereignty”. This time around, three senior Chinese officials were assertive about their claims and the need for the US to review its military pivot to Asia. China’s Minister for National Defence, General Chang Wanquan, made it clear that since stability was critical for development, the Chinese military would strive for equal and equitable regional stability with participation and consensus amongst stakeholders (Asean) without outside interference
Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin said that, since the new regional security architecture had lagged behind the economic cooperation (bilateral trade between Asean and China is upwards of $500 billion annually), this needed to be corrected with a consensus-based regional order and international law under the United Nations. The President of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Wu Shicun, was direct and strident. According to Wu, China would continue with its (infrastructure building) activities in the SCS, and it could even impose an air defence zone over the sea if geopolitics continued to exacerbate stakes for China. He advised the US to avoid misjudgement and miscalculation and refrain from freedom of navigation patrols within 12 nautical miles of Chinese controlled territories. Despite the US Pacific Command’s formidable military power, and having lost the case for nine-dash-line to the Philippines at the UN arbitral tribunal, factors that stood China in good stead over its SCS claims were its international stature, political will, favourable geography, deep pockets and enticement of its One Belt One Road project for regional nations’ prosperity. China’s next major challenge from the US would be in 2020, when, having procured its first indigenous aircraft carrier (nicknamed CV-17), and having completed the underway military reforms, it would seek to break-out of the first island chain around the Yellow, South and East China Seas.
My second takeway was the emerging new Cold War between the US and Russia and how it would hasten the strengthening of the new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. The US decision to deploy its Theatre High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) systems in South Korea against North Korea’s purported nuclear and ballistic missiles threats has intensified tensions between the US and Russia which have already locked horns over Ukraine and Syria. The THAAD, which would provide the US with strategic early warning, large area command and control and anti-satellite capability causing widespread damage to adversaries’
information systems, has alarmed both Russia and China, who see themselves as the real targets.
Since Russia was named ‘aggressor’ in the US’s National Strategy 2016 document, and China, according to its Defence Minister, Chang, had concluded that “a stand-alone country (the US) was seeking absolute advantage in the military domain”, the military closeness between Moscow and Beijing seemed inevitable. This manifested in the announced media briefing on Moscow-Beijing joint anti-missile drill in 2017 at the Xiangshan Forum. While delegates were invited to the joint briefing, the organisers changed their mind at the last minute, allowing select media from China and Russia at the event presided over by Russia’s Antonov and Maj Gen. Cai Jun of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission. While I was disallowed to attend the joint briefing, Pakistan’s Director, Military Operations Directorate, Brig Gen Arif Masood managed an entry after some persuasion – maybe from the host country.
My third takeaway was on India, which did not figure (except by China and Pakistan) in the plenary sessions and even in the specific panel session on ‘major power relations and global strategic pattern’. India was mentioned in passing by Chinese Vice-Minister Liu to buttress Beijing’s claim of seeking consensus (as opposed to US unilateralism) in its talks with India for peace and cooperation.
India, however, found fulsome mention in Gen Hayat’s discourse on terrorist threats and counter-measures. Lumping Kashmir with Afghanistan, West Asia, Iraq and Syria, he said that militancy was a consequence of “continued denial of people’s right for self-determination”. The “unresolved Kashmir dispute”, he noted, was because of “India’s failure to pursue talks (with Pakistan) on occupied Kashmir”. Later, Gen Hayat concurred with my suggestion that the National Security Advisors’ channel was open for talks.
While claiming Zarb-e-Azb (involving 200,000 security forces) to be the largest successful counter-terror operation in the world undertaken by Pakistan in North Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Hayat (who is responsible for intelligence in this operation), told me that, for a successful counter-terror operations, intelligence should be the instrument of state or its overall responsibility.
The inescapable conclusion for India is that the new model of international relations for Asia-Pacific would come about sooner than expected, with China, Russia and Pakistan as its indispensable members. Ignoring it would have consequences which India perhaps has not envisaged as yet.
(The writer is co-author, with Ghazala Wahab, of the book, ‘Dragon on Our Doorstep’, to be published by Aleph Book Company in winter 2016)