Quest for Supremacy: An analytical study of contemporary Chinese behaviour

Quest for Supremacy: An analytical study of contemporary Chinese behaviour

By – Abhishek Verma;

The Chinese political system —which is based on the defining ideologies of Chinese Communist Party (CCP)— is of a sui generis nature. It is a country with a unique combination of political socialism with economic capitalism. Three factors guide this implicit ideological orientation; historical experiences, the fall of the Soviet Union, and China’s quest to regain globally dominant stature as defined in the past (before western interference). One can understand CCP’s overarching intention behind its domestic and international conduct in terms of these factors. This article explores the hidden motive and overarching principle behind Chinese global behaviour. It will try to simplify some contemporary Chinese behaviour concerning their overarching objective of global supremacy. The above three factors and their influence has been discussed in detail in the following section. 

Historical Evolution and its impact on Communist China

Historically, the Chinese worldview was conceptualized around divine existence and heavenly mandated kingdoms. Chinese ancient philosophers like Zhuanxu, Yao, Shun, Yu and more were instrumental in institutionalizing this conceptualization of Chinese society. More implementable ideas were put forth by philosophers like Confucius, Sunzi, Zhuangzi, Laozi and Mozi. These philosophers wielded profound influence over generations of Chinese leadership. 

Chinese hierarchal international system and preconceived notion of heavenly mandated centrality were challenged by western interference in the mid-19th century leading to complete chaos. In communist China, although Mao intended to erase Confucianism from Chinese psych, a glimpse of Confucian influence in Chinese political conduct is very much visible apart from the state promotion of Confucius institutions worldwide. Political leadership in China has built narratives such as ‘Century of Humiliation’ to tighten its authority over Chinese people, society, and administration. This was visible during Mao, who initiated programs like the cultural- revolution, the hundred flowers campaign, the Great Leap Forward and others. These proved to be massive disasters for the Chinese society. 

Learning from this experience, Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms and cleared the way for western-style financial capitalism to play a significant part in the Chinese development story. There was an implicit understanding and political consensus that if China has to regain its past glory, it needs a collaborative & cooperative approach along with peaceful external relations. Slogans like peaceful co-existence became more prominent in the Chinese diplomatic rulebook. The most auspicious moment arrived due to the great power compulsion between USA and USSR. US rapprochement towards China combined with economic reforms proved to be an ambitious cocktail that drove one the most significant societal transformations. 

The Soviet Union and China became natural allies after the communist takeover of mainland China. USSR started aiding China militarily and economically as itperceived it as an essential player for the Soviet bloc in the coming cold war. But the CCP’s ambitions and Soviet leader’s deviation from basic tenets of socialism led China to change its ways. Relations started deteriorating afterwards, reaching their peak in late 1969 when the world’s two largest communist states were on the brink of war. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union provided a necessary educative experience and governance model for China. CCP learnt that controlled economic reforms must be coupled with tightened political control to avoid the undesirable fallout of ‘Perestroika and glasnost’. As a result of this understanding, Deng ordered brutal suppression of democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. To absolve itself of repressive image after the Tiananmen incident and implement cautious assimilation, China sighed Non- Proliferation Treaty, which it had vehemently criticized in 1970 when NPT came into force.  

With a vast population, continental size, coastal landscape and above all, long civilizational history to look for, China’s rise seemed inevitable. Napoleon once said, ‘let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’. Essential staggered steps taken by CCP has led Beijing to dominate international politics. After opening up its economy for western businesses and providing cheap labour, it intertwined the global supply chain with the Chinese domestic market. Once it gained a dominant position, China entered World Trade Organisation in 2001. This was the beginning of Chinese economic dominance globally. After securing economic power, it ventured into maritime and military superiority. Against this backdrop, we see a more politically assertive and confidant China today led by aggressive band of CCP leaders. 

Contemporary behaviour

Presently, CCP feels confident about its international behaviour but sometimes accepts that it is legitimate for China to drift against international norms and conventions (ICJ ruling on the South China Sea). Today, much of CCP’s diplomacy is guided by a pragmatic calculation of costs and benefit corresponding to its stature and associated responsibility. Because of this pragmatism, China projects itself as a responsible state and find itself on the same page with the west on specific global issues. Three recent events demonstrate that CCP intends to raise China’s stakes politically and psychologically in international affairs. First, amidst intense great power competition, China has been at the forefront of curbing carbon emissions. As per Zheng Zeguang, preserving the environment is already written into the guidelines of china’s governing party. CCP has announced that it will not build any coal-fired power stations overseas, as well as the peak of its carbon emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060. China has also committed an initial capital contribution of 1.5bn Yuan in newly formed Kunming Biodiversity fund. 

This demonstrates CCP’s the resolve and determination to protect environment which it uses to project its sensitivity towards global issues. Second, China and other significant oil consumers agreed to release crude oil from its national strategic stockpiles, a plan coordinated by the USA to reduce global prices. Third, China’s State Council Information Office published a recent paper titled “China: Democracy That Works”. Before mentioning the new model of democracy that is different from the western conceptualization of democracy, the report explains China’s internal political processes, institutional framework, and pragmatic practices internalized by Chinese society. On the lines of a most democratic constitution and contrary to the exaltation of state-led development at the hundredth-anniversary celebration of the Communist Party of China, the report stipulates that “….all the powers in the Peoples Republic of China belongs to the people….. China’s political power is not linked in any way with personal status, wealth, or social relations, but is equally enjoyed by all the people.” Scholars saw it as a standard propaganda tool. However, it needs greater scrutiny to decipher its importance for Chinese political elites. 

Domestically, other key issues that have emerged recently are growing inequality in rural and urban incomes. As a result of which, under the banner of ‘common prosperity’, CCP is trying to reinforce its control of private sector which has been instrumental in China’s economic success for the last 4 decades. Other major issue for CCP is china’s aging population. Because of the ‘one child policy’ introduced in 1980 to reduce the number of mouths to feed, Chinese working population in today’s context has stated shrinking. This led china to abandon the policy in 2016. Apart from these challenges, huge internal debt and unprofitable capital investments inside China have created severe constraint to China’s quest for supremacy.

The Ultimate ‘Guiding Light’ 

The quest for supremacy guides China to be pragmatic in their international behaviour and not just be antagonistic to Western-led initiatives. They analyze issues on their merit, driven by their national interest (and not by international consensus). This strategy educates them while being proactive in climate negotiations and curbing carbon emissions; they can ignore ICJ ruling by granting legislative backing to their sovereignty over the disputed South China Sea. The two most dominating factors to analyze a country’s developmental trajectory are its ‘capacity’ (in terms of resources) and ‘intentions (ideological orientation and experiences). Communist China’s political trajectory since Mao’s takeover of the mainland explains that Intentions were always self-educative. It was just a matter of time for China to develop that capacity and internal strength required to dominate international politics. Today, China is a well-recognized economic superpower, made significant advancements in information technology, is the global leader in the electronic low end to high-end products and has a robust space program. 

Hence, the fundamental Chinese approach towards international relations is based on a perception that they are already a hegemonic power. This is quite evident because China today cares about not only its material interest but also its psychological image. Today, they are more than ever ready to condemn publicly and even punish other countries for causing a dent in the Chinese image or advancing the western conception of authoritative China (Australia’s support for inspection on COVID origin and subsequent trade restrictions imposed by China). Following a debt trap diplomacy under Belt and Road Initiative, China is well poised to arm-twist the creditors, so much so that they issue a precautionary warning for the act, which are still being contemplated (warning Bangladesh of severe consequences if they join QUAD).

As a result of extreme globalization, China has integrated its economy with the world’s economy and created a well-knit web of economic dependence in South Asia and South-East Asian regions. Lately, China has also initiated buying stakes in global conflict zones such as the Middle East (Iran-China 25 Years Cooperation Program) and Afghanistan quagmire. China’s intervention in both these conflict areas is a perfect manifestation of CCP’s intention in terms of furthering the great power competition with the United States of America. Iran is facing the brunt of US led western sanctions and Afghanistan, after US withdrawal, provides a readymade opportunity for China to make inroads. Overt claim of stakes in these regions make Chinese presence more desirable by the regional players as they seek to offset US influence or grab economic assistance by China. All these initiatives point towards a unique Chinese strategy wherein they attempt to institutionalize a particular framework that will act as a fulcrum on which their future dominance will be based. 

Conclusion 

The unprecedented economic and societal growth in China, to a great extent, can be attributed to the CCP. People’s Republic of China is a practical manifestation of Chinese Communist Party and their ideology. But in a bid to maintain strict political control over the party and Chinese people, various fissures have emerged within the top echelon of CPC. How the upcoming third-term bid for Xi works out is to be seen, but seeing Xi’s attempts at constant eradication of political rivals and deeper integration of his governance within the CCP, it becomes more likely than not that the CCP will continue to channel its power over China via Xi in the next election, hence showing consistency in China’s contemporary behaviour in the coming future.  

Abhishek Verma, is a PhD scholar at Diplomacy and Disarmament (DAD) division, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He holds a research experience at international relations magazine ‘The Kootneeti’ and ‘Foreign Policy Research Centre’ (FPRC) a New Delhi based think tank, The Takshashila Institute and Chennai Centre for China Studies. He had several publications across these platforms including a monograph titled ‘China’s Growing Stature and Inherent Conflict: Tracing Chinese Strategic Thoughts and its Contemporary Behaviour’. He completed his graduation from Hansraj College, Delhi University and MA in Politics (Specialisation in International Studies) from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached out at @soni_abhi2018.

Recent Australia’s Regional Overtures in the Indian Ocean Region

Recent Australia’s Regional Overtures in the Indian Ocean Region

By – Artyom Garin;

In the present times, there have been clear attempts by Australia to broaden the scope of its regional policies, including the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It brings benefits to Canberra, giving it greater influence in the Indo-Pacific. However, Australia may face an overstretch, as every power has its own limits. 

The importance of the Indian Ocean for Australia

Exacerbating further its geo-strategic calculus, Australia borders the Pacific, Indian, and Antarctic Oceans. Over the years, Canberra has focused and experienced more of its strategies in the Pacific. The IOR has received less attention in Australia’s foreign policy, and the situation has begun to change quite recently. Commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy has contributed to this. In 2013, Australia became the first state to officially declare its belonging to the region. References to this were made in the Defence White Paper. In fact, the Indo-Pacific concept has become a quintessence of political, economic cooperation and, at the same time, is linked to the growing China’s influence both regionally and globally.

Australia’s interest in the IOR is also strengthened by a number of quantitative indicators. These include possessing one of the longest coastlines among Indo-Pacific countries. State of Western Australia, whose shores belong to the Indian Ocean, is the country’s gateway to the region.

However, Australia has island territories in the IOR, whose geostrategic importance is growing as China and the United States (US) have become increasingly competitive in the region. Given the unique position between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (2,700 km. from Perth) and Christmas Island (2,600 km. from Perth) have a special place in Australia’s defence policy. Nowadays, there are airfields with the P8-A Poseidon patrol aircrafts and wharfs. Their unique geographical location is a useful asset for Australia in view of China’s increased activities in the Indo-Pacific. The territories in the IOR also provides Australian forces with rapid access to the region.

‘Territorial Overstretch’ as a challenge for Australia’s Politics in the IOR

The expansion of Australia’s influence in the IOR has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the interplay between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean makes the scope of Canberra’s foreign policy more extensive, giving Australia a greater status and incentive to build relationships with other powers in the region. On the other hand, each power has its limits.

Australia holds a strong  position on a number of geo-economic and strategic indicators: 1st in the world in terms of gold, iron ore, uranium, lead and other mineral resources, 13th in terms of nominal GDP (2020), 13th highest level of military spending in 2018, and fifth highest among countries in Asia and South Pacific. It also has experience in governing and ensuring stability over the vast expanse of Oceania. In fact, the South Pacific is Canberra’s area of influence. Australia accounts for approximately 94.5 per cent of the South Pacific’s GDP, nearly 98 per cent of defence and security expenditures, and roughly 60 per cent of total official development assistance (ODA), making it the leader of external assistance.

Over the years, Australia has taken increasingly ambitious initiatives to expand its influence over the three oceans. As Rumley, Doyle, and Chaturvedi rightly pointed out in 2012, Australia may face a real ‘territorial overstretch’ that can lead to material difficulties and even shortages of regional specialists. This was confirmed in 2020-2021, when the Australian government contributed A$575 billion (US$397.4 billion) for the next 10 years to modernize the Armed Forces and Military-Industrial Complex (MIC). According to the Australian Prime Minister, the country should be better prepared in case a ‘high-intensity conflict’ (in fact ‘war-like’) situation arises. Consecutively, there have been reports of plans to upgrade defence infrastructure in the Northern Territory of Australia (where at least three military bases are located), Oceania and the IOR.

In the autumn of 2021, the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom announced a deepening of defence and technology cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. As an outcome, a trilateral security partnership called AUKUS was signed. Under this agreement, the US will transfer nuclear submarine technology to Australia. Canberra may now have submarines with higher speeds, longer underwater exposure, greater geographic range, and even nuclear weapons. This poses a completely different and broader defence challenge to Australia. Undoubtedly, Australia’s rearmament was spurred by the rapid pace of military construction by China. The South China Sea or Indian Ocean waters could be the main theatre of operations for the new Australian submarines. But is Australia ready for such a role? Is it ready to be identified as a party to the conflict with China, its main trading partner today, and expecting submarines by 2040-2060? The world is changing rapidly, so by the time Canberra possesses its submarines, it may be necessary to operate in a very different environment.

In an era of pandemics and changes, the allocation of resources to other fields may be more relevant. The Indo-Pacific countries will focus on recovering from the effects of COVID-19 next years. Multibillion-dollar defence spending will allow Australia to reach a new level in terms of military power, but these resources may be useful for strengthening the healthcare, economic sustainability, training specialists in the field of Indo-Pacific, and assistance to small developing island states. Against the background of strained relations with Beijing, Canberra may face difficulties in the field of trade, which will impact its well-being and expenditures.

Australia’s Future Perspectives and Challenges in Indo-Pacific 

Australia could go a different way and maximize its benefits by building a subregional security system in a more limited space, Oceania. Its defence line is covering almost all of Melanesia (Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands). The fifth continent has dominated the ocean subregion over the past century. However, Canberra is now losing its influence in the South Pacific. This is confirmed by recent events in the Solomon Islands. At the end of December, China expressed readiness to send police advisory group to the small island developing state. The authorities of the Solomon Islands took this step after the riots that took place in Honiara and was connected with the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC.

Given the growing influence of Beijing, Canberra will increase strategic cooperation with other powers of the Indo-Pacific, for example, with India. Both countries have a number of similar challenges in traditional zones of influence. This leads to the development of humanitarian and defence cooperation. Nevertheless, Australia is more interested in the IOR than India in Oceania.

The IOR has great geostrategic significance. As is known, the Indian Ocean accounts for an approximate 80% of the global maritime oil trade. The South Pacific, in turn, is less affected by international trade. In addition, this subregion is too far from the potential theatre of military operations in the Indo-Pacific. Anyway, New Delhi’s support may be needed in Canberra, which is interested in containing Beijing in the region. India is able to support Australia in strengthening its position in the IOR. Canberra, for its part, can help New Delhi to take the first steps towards establishing relations with the Pacific Islands.

The increased rivalry between Indo-Pacific powers may lead to infrastructural competition in the region and the unification of Quad countries’ efforts to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For example, Australia implements its multibillion-dollar Pacific Step-Up aimed at developing relations with Oceania in the field of economy, security, and external AID. Japan has an Expanded Partnership on Quality Infrastructure (EPQI), India in this case can offer Project Mausam, Project Sagarmala (SAGAR), and the USA has already established Infrastructure Transaction and Assistance Network (ITAN). However, the Quad countries had been left behind in terms of BRI. The Chinese initiative already includes almost 140 countries. The value of BRI projects exceeded US$4 trillion in 2020.

Conclusion

Australia is trying to broaden the scope of its foreign policy by projecting its national interests into the larger IOR spaces. In many ways, the success of this venture will depend on India, which Canberra sees as the basis for a sustainable Indo-Pacific strategy. Nevertheless, Australia faces some challenges in implementing its plans. Firstly, increased foreign policy outreach distracts it from the affairs in Oceania. Secondly, the resources of each power are limited, so Canberra will have to correctly prioritize defense, diplomacy, and determine the scope of its foreign policy. Despite the high defense costs, Australia will not be able to compete with China. Probably, this financing could be more effective in other areas. Finally, the situation may change in the domestic political dimension, including after the upcoming elections in Australia.

Artyom Garin is a Research Assistant of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is interested in multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, as well as in Australia-China relations. His research interests also include defence and aid policies of Australia, as well as politics and history of the Pacific Island countries.

Evolving Security Paradigm in The Indo-Pacific: Implications for Japan

Evolving Security Paradigm in The Indo-Pacific: Implications for Japan

By – Anudeep Gujjeti;

The formation of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) security partnership has undoubtedly been a significant geopolitical development in the Indo-Pacific. This pact came in the backdrop of various nations shifting their focus to the Indo-Pacific and the formation of minilateral groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad). The AUKUS deal seeks to address the security concerns in the Indo-Pacific. This is evident from their joint statement, wherein it talked about this partnership as a historic opportunity for “the three nations” by recommitting themselves “to protect shared values and promote security and prosperity” in the Indo-Pacific region. 

This is a significant development, not just in the Indo-Pacific but also among the comity of nations, considering the nature of the deal where the US and the UK are willing to share their nuclear expertise with Australia. In November 2021, the three-member countries also signed the naval nuclear propulsion information agreement to share sensitive information. This partnership has the potential to increase Australia’s commitment to peace and stability in the region and evolve as a net security provider in the region. There was no specific mention of China in the AUKUS statement, but it is understood that this pact intends to counter the growing threat of China and to limit its influence in disrupting the rules-based order in the region. 

Both North Korea and China were quick to condemn the formation of this trilateral security pact, saying that this would disrupt the strategic stability in the region. China even went on to accuse that the member countries of the security pact are fuelling an “arms race in the region” and criticised them for being irresponsible. There were mixed responses to this framework from the regional stakeholders. Malaysia and Indonesia shared their reservations about the new nuclear deal in their backyard, which they think can fuel an arms race in the region. Whereas countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan welcomed this framework. While the debates are still on whether this pact would give rise to a nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific, Australia has signed a military deal worth $1billion with a South Korean defence company. 

Such action has the potential to spark opposition from China and North Korea. At the same time, Indonesia is in negotiations with France to procure Rafale fighter jets to boost its capabilities amid rising tensions with China. With all these developments, it is beyond doubt that the Indo-Pacific has emerged as a theatre of conflict of different dimensions ranging from ideologies, values, protecting national security and building capabilities. In this context, it is important to understand the role of Japan, a significant player in the region and an important stakeholder, in upholding stability and rules-based order in the region. 

Implications for Japan

Unlike any other country in the region, Japan is facing a dual challenge. One is to contest the growing aggressiveness of China in the Indo-Pacific to maintain rules-based order, and second, to counter the threats emanating from countries such as North Korea and China to its sovereignty. North Korea’s continued missile tests pose a severe security risk for both South Korea and Japan equally, while China’s increasing adventurism into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone  increases tensions across the strait. Any attempts to forcefully annex Taiwan will have spill-over effects and would disturb the stability in the region. Japan has genuine reasons to feel threatened because China would eventually concentrate on the territorial sovereignty of Japan by asserting its claim on the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in China). This fear is not misplaced considering the military adventurism of China elsewhere, be it India or Hong Kong or Taiwan and its disputes with the ASEAN nations. Former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe even commented that “military adventures are the way to economic suicide” to China’s leadership and a “Taiwan contingency is a contingency of Japan”, that requires US intervention. This drew strong criticism from China, and Beijing even held an emergency meeting with Japan’s ambassador to China. 

In such a fragile strategic environment, Japan must change its course of diplomacy. First of all, Japan needs a strong political will to stand against the imminent threat posed by China. The Japanese political elite in the recent past has been maintaining a hard-line stance against China. This was evident even during the campaign for the Presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, whereby all the four contestants, including Fumio Kishida, the present Japanese Prime Minister, have welcomed Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). 

Additionally, the G7’s support for Taiwan to join the World Trade Organisation reflects Japan’s efforts to work with other states to support Taiwan. It is still too early to judge Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s policy towards China, whose political outlook and vision is based on the principles of “Kochikai”, a faction of the Liberal Democratic Party of which he has been a leader and continues to be so till date. These are not only politically hawkish policies that irritate China but also to make a statement that any forceful occupation of Taiwan would mean an emergency for US-Japan alliance and would necessitate a military response. 

Changing political stance would not mean anything unless it is matched with tangible changes in the strategic forces and on the geo-economic front. This is because Japan’s economic prosperity is linked to the stable, secure, free, rules-based and open Indo-Pacific and South China Sea and East China Sea. Any unilateral change in the status quo would mean an economic death trap for Japan. Japan exports around 22 per cent to China, excluding exports to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Exports to Greater China (which includes Taiwan and Hong Kong) will amount to 33.1 per cent of total Japanese exports. This is double what Japan exports to the US, and this scenario would become even worse if China’s application is accepted to join CPTPP. 

Considering the tilt in the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and to avoid any type of trade calamities, Japan needs to diversify its export market, and its Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI), in the wake of disruptions to the existing supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic, is a step in the right direction. Still, it remains to be seen whether the countries involved (Japan, India and Australia) in the initiative can match the expectations. Even before SCRI came into picture the then Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe announced “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” on 21st May, 2015 on the occasion of the “21st International Conference on the Future of Asia,” which was later on revised as the “Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” (EPQI) at the G7 Ise-Shima Summit. EPQI intends to promote both “sustainable” and “quality” infrastructure in Asia to counter China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  In spite of being one of the important foreign policy considerations of Japan, EPQI lacks the vision and financial prowess to match BRI in both scope and ambition. 

To address EPQI’s limitations Japan can bank on another major initiative that has the potential to counter China’s economic clout is the US’ International Development Finance Corporation (DFC)-led Blue Dot network launched on the side-lines of the 35th ASEAN Summit in Thailand. The major drawback of this initiative is it does not finance infrastructure projects directly, unlike the China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative in developing countries. Instead, it is a standard-setting framework and raises doubts about whether this is a first-world solution for third-word problems. Apart from these, to promote Free and Open Indo-Pacific and secure Japan’s economic prosperity, Japan needs to streamline, with the help of India, the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and at the same time effectively implement Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement. 

Another area where Japan needs to invest is modernising its military forces and apart from increasing its military spending Japans needs to actively get into bilateral and multilateral strategic agreements to build its capabilities. Being a member of the Quad is vital in many aspects although it started as an informal grouping of like-minded nations rather than a formal alliance. Though the Quad is not a security alliance, former Prime Minister Abe believed in the Quad’s power to ensure a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and support Japan’s heavily dependent economy on open sea lanes for its trade with the world. Other than forming a working group on COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and supply-chain resilience, Japan and Australia pledged to promote security cooperation of the Quad to counter China’s assertiveness and maintained that strategic consultations with the other Quad partners are vital. 

Similarly, an additional grouping with which Japan can further its cooperation is the AUKUS, as its scope as a security grouping is wider than that of the Quad considering its areas of cooperation. The AUKUS can be seen as a complementary grouping to the Quad and Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence-sharing alliance of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Japan, which is sometimes considered as the “Sixth Eye”, benefits immensely by deepening its cooperation with such a grouping, considering the geographical proximity of Japan to China and North Korea, and increasing it capabilities. In the same vein, signing of a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Australia will provide interoperability and cooperation between Australian Defence Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Force.  

To conclude, it can be said that irrespective of all these, Japan needs to chart its own course of action in its neighbourhood without the support of outside players. This does not necessarily mean that it has to go alone in important geopolitical considerations, but be ready to act decisively in the event of a threat to its vital interests in the region.

Anudeep Gujjeti is a PhD candidate from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working on India and Japan relations in the Post-Cold War period. His research interests include Indian Foreign Policy, Japanese Foreign Policy, Indo-Japan relations, Soft Power, and Non-traditional security. He can be reached on Twitter @anudeepgujjeti.   

Why is China Pitching the Serbia Model to Europe to Counter Taiwan-EU Relations?

Why is China Pitching the Serbia Model to Europe to Counter Taiwan-EU Relations?

By – Bhavdeep Modi;

China, over the past decade, has forged closer ties with the Western Balkan (WBs) states through the expansion of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and the 16+1 Initiative (earlier the 17+1 Initiative). In what was earlier seen as the backyard of Europe and the US, the Western Balkan region has steadily become a theatre of Chinese geopolitical and geo-economic influence via the BRI. The recent Euro Tour of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Serbia, Greece, Albania, and Italy is a further testament to the importance that Beijing attaches to the strategic value of the region. As China looks to pitch the Serbia Model – large funding under BRI projects across critical sectors with lesser scrutiny- to Europe, what factors are shaping its outlook, and what is the desired outcome? 

While Beijing vies for influence in the WBs, it has also been looking at ways to contain the downward spiral in its relations with the European Union (EU). This downward spiral can be attributed to the EU’s angst over China’s human rights record vis-à-vis Uyghurs, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet. Moreover, China is also worried about the European parliament’s recent vote to support stronger relations with Taiwan. 

Concurrently, recent developments like the EU’s adoption of an Indo-Pacific strategy and the announcement of the Global Gateway are also being closely watched by Beijing. As a result, China’s play in the WBs seems to be aimed towards presenting the Serbia-model to Europe to lure the latter to Beijing’s BRI fold and expand its overall sphere of influence, and offset growing EU-Taiwan ties. However, maneuvering its many divergences with Europe will remain a key challenge for the Chinese government. 

China & the Western Balkans: Looking at the Bigger Picture

WBs has traditionally been Europe and US’ bastion, with both having provided heavy investments to the region in terms of economic and military assistance after the breakup of erstwhile Yugoslavia. Since it provides access to the “inner core of Europe” through the Mediterranean, the WBs have been a point of geostrategic competition for decades.

The increased attention towards China and Asia has led to a neglection of the WBs by the Transatlantic allies. China has grabbed this opportunity and infused huge investments in the WBs’ nations. It has also increased the investment intensity steadily. In doing so, China is reviving its communist links to Albania (in the 1950s) and the former Yugoslavia (1970s) to forge stronger relations in the region.

To understand China in the WBs, it is important to identify Xi Jinping’s BRI as the key element in Beijing’s outreach to the region and Xi Jinping’s foreign policy focused on the “Chinese Dream”. The WBs region, currently in need of infrastructural financing, has been identified by China as a possible region for the expansion of BRI.

Here, the 16+1 Initiative, which aims to promote trade and investment between Beijing and the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries while also looking to expand China’s diplomatic heft, takes on critical weightage.

As of 2020, China has invested the most in the energy and transportation sectors- constituting 64/102 Chinese activities in the region. In the second phase, it has planned for investments to build digital infrastructure in the region in the form of information and communications technology (ICT) projects. The idea behind these projects is to provide China access to the European market and strategic access to various transit points that connect China to Europe. Here, the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route (LSER) is the key region-wide initiative undertaken under the BRI, and Chinese companies have picked up major stakes in various ports of Greece, mainly the port of Piraeus.

Thus, China has successfully leveraged the gaps left by Europe and US’ engagements in the WBs through strategic investments. Certain advantages have helped China to establish its presence in the region. For instance, a major concern for WBs is the European expectation to implement governance reforms in return for support- something which many WBs’ nations have been reluctant to carry out. Furthermore, as Chinese investments arrive with lesser scrutiny as compared to EU-led aid, it attracts the WBs nations to indulge in business with Beijing. Hence, it would not be an exaggeration to state that Chinese investments in the WBs are part of Xi Jinping’s larger strategy aimed at laying out the advantages of the BRI and presenting the Chinese economic model as superior to the Western economic model. 

Countering Taiwan: Selling the Serbia Model

China and the EU have been witnessing a downward spiral in their relations. Even though China remains the EU’s largest trading partner, both have failed to reach a middle ground in ramping up their economic ties despite the intention to do so. The ratification of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) has also been frozen since May 2021 after China imposed sanctions on several EU individuals and entities. The EU had reacted with countersanctions on the Chinese while France, the UK, and Germany sent military vessels into the South China Sea this year- inviting strong reactions from Beijing. 

Nonetheless, China recognizes the importance Europe holds. In a video meeting with Angela Merkel recently, Xi Jinping stated that both sides “believe that the common interests of China and the EU far outweigh contradictions and differences”.

To accomplish this goal, Serbia has become a tool for China to tell a success story to the EU. Serbia is now a hub of Chinese investment in the WBs- with more than 50% Chinese funding reaching it out of all the other WBs nations. The Budapest-Belgrade railway stands as the flagship BRI project in Europe, being accelerated after Wang Yi visited Serbia.

Beyond an economic partnership, Serbia provides Beijing with an ally in Europe that would support its core concerns. This is exemplified in Serbia’s steadfast support for the Chinese position on Taiwan and Beijing’s non-recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. 

While mainly driven by economic factors, China’s involvement with the WBs has certain strategic and geopolitical connotations. This can be understood in the backdrop of China positing Serbia as BRI’s success story in the WBs and using the same to accomplish two goals- luring the EU to its BRI fold and building diplomatic support against Taiwan.

Identifying Cracks in the Chinese Approach: A Chance for Strengthening the Transatlantic Alliance?

China making inroads into the WBs may appear to be lucrative, but it is not free from cracks. These cracks can be classified under two heads- lack of a system of checks and balances in the BRI projects, and threats that might emerge similarly to other BRI projects across the globe.

Talking about the system of checks and balances, China is currently offering BRI projects to the WBs nations through the Chinese EXIM Bank and the Chinese Development Bank (CDB) loans. These routes offer lesser scrutiny in comparison to European or American investments. While this lure is enough to pull the WBs nations- lax governance, corruption, and bribery are just a few of the issues that are already coming up.

Such dilemmas are further accentuated by threats that emanate from such BRI projects. It has been widely documented in Africa, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka that loans provided for infrastructure projects under the BRI have often led to debt traps for these countries. As a result, China ends up controlling the critical assets of these countries as payback.  An example of this was Beijing taking control over the strategic Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.

In the case of WBs, it would not be far-fetched to be fearful of such debt-traps emerging, since the WBs nations are also developing nations and provide room for China to take control of critical assets for its national interests, especially transit points, and maritime routes. Similarly, it also raises concerns of potential dual-use ports coming up in the region at the behest of China, in a similar fashion to the South China Sea. 

Apart from the strategic fears, it has been observed in countries like Sri Lanka that along with Chinese investment, Beijing has subtly been spreading its cultural influence, often at the cost of local traditions and culture (exemplified in Mandarin sign boards replacing Tamil language signboards). In the case of WBs, it becomes important to anticipate such occurrences well in advance as China increases its footprint in the region. 

The human rights discourse is extremely crucial to scrutinize as well. It has already been reported that Chinese construction sites are using slave labour in Serbia; while a Chinese steel mill has been flouting environmental guidelines- increasing the risk of cancer in nearby areas. These instances are not very different from China’s dismal human rights record in foreign countries. Similar instances have taken place in Pakistan, Africa, and elsewhere.  This would invoke some fears in WBs.

These cracks highlight the downside of China’s relations with the WBs nations and call for exercising caution by the WBs, while offering a chance to the Transatlantic alliance to reassess the terms on which it wants to negotiate with China in the future, especially the EU. Since China wants to reengage with the EU on the economic front, the clear divergences between the two over ideology and human rights cannot be ignored. 

China has not shown any inclination to find a middle ground on these two issues. On the economic front too, the recent announcement by the EU to launch the Global Gateway initiative, a €300 billion plan for infrastructure development across the globe, is in direct competition with China’s BRI. As the EU adopts a more independent approach in foreign policy, with a pivot towards the Indo-Pacific and balancing China, how Beijing and Brussels navigate the vagaries of their relationship, remains to be seen. China has effectively managed to exploit the gaps in assistance left by the United States and the EU to the WBs. While it may cast doubt on the EU’s and US’ leadership in the WBs, it also offers them a chance to rebuild the Transatlantic Alliance —which has taken key hits post the signing of the AUKUS and hasty US-led withdrawal from Kabul resulting in the swift return of the Taliban —by using the WBs as a catalyst.

A major concern that should be focused on by both EU and the US should be the membership issues in the EU of the candidate countries from WBs who have long kept away due to certain expectations by both. With the EU and the US identifying China as the key future challenge, the WBs should serve as the driver behind a stronger Transatlantic alliance.

Bhavdeep Modi is a Senior Research Associate at ORCA and he is also a Visiting Researcher at Red Lantern Analytica (RLA), a New-Delhi based think-tank and has previously worked with Mr. Ninong Ering (former MP & currently MLA, Arunachal Pradesh). Mr Modi is also a former Teach for India Fellow and has worked as a political consultant in the past. He has interned at CLAWS, Chase India, and office of Mr. Anurag Singh Thakur (Minister of Sports, Youth Affairs and Minister for Information & Broadcasting). A lawyer by degree, he has also done an MA in Diplomacy, Law & Business with a specialization in Defense & National Security studies.

China’s Xiaokang villages- Why should India be concerned?

China’s Xiaokang villages- Why should India be concerned?

ByShivam Shekhawat;

The Galwan valley clash between the Indian and Chinese forces last year was an inflexion point in the Sino-Indian relationship. India viewed China’s actions as breaching ‘peace and tranquillity’ and going against the spirit of the agreements signed between the two countries stipulating minimal troop level on the borders. The increased belligerence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the failure of the two sides to reach a consensus on the boundary dispute following the clash has deteriorated bilateral relations further. 

This opinion piece while putting emphasis on the aggressive Chinese frontier policy, will focus primarily on the construction of the moderately prosperous villages called Xiaokang in the disputed areas between the two Himalayan neighbours by the PRC and the consequences it has for India’s security. In the background of the border dispute, the recent reports of the PLA constructing a bridge on the Pangong Tso lake and the orders by the Chinese premier to “combine training with combat operations”, there is an urgent need for India to take account of the infrastructural developments in both the eastern and western sectors and to pace up its own security in the border regions. 

‘Poverty alleviation’ villages 

In October 2020, the Xinhua news agency hailed the Communist government of China for eliminating poverty completely, with the CCP Chief in Tibet- Wu Yinhjie, calling the relocation of people to ghetto-like new model villages a ‘major victory’. According to Wu, till 2020 a total of 900 villages were constructed with an estimated 200 near the Indian border. The construction of these Xiaokang villages, which according to the People’s daily “shine like pearls”, is an aspect of the CCP’s overall strategy of transforming China into a moderately prosperous society. Xinhua news media describes Xiaokang as a state in which imperfection persists but still, everyone is equally provided for. The term was reintroduced in the political discourse of China in the 1970s but the final push for its attainment was given in the last eight years. An intermediate stage in the path of modernisation, it involved rejuvenation in all aspects- economic, political, cultural, social and ecological in a coordinated fashion. 

In the plan to make a moderately prosperous society, the Tibet Autonomous region (TAR) has been placed at the forefront of its strategy. Describing it as a vanguard of the national security barrier and as a region in urgent need of development and nourishment, China has accrued a dual purpose to these villages. The government of the TAR in 2017 launched a plan to build 628 villages in 21 counties, stretching from the Ngari, Shigatse, Shinnan and Nyingchi prefectures. The state allocated 30.1 billion yuan ( approx. 30000 crore rupees) for their construction and for building critical infrastructures like water, electricity, road, communication, network, etc. The location of these villages along the contested territories between India and China sheds light on the PRC’s real motives behind their positioning. Aiming to gain a leverage in its border disputes with its neighbours, the villages should be viewed together with the development of bridges and railway lines in the same regions and their potential in increasing China’s ability to reach Arunachal Pradesh. According to Claude Arpi, an expert on China, the villages are also aimed at changing the demographic identity of the region, with plans to enforce ethnic inter-mingling as a means to exercise control over the masses in the borders. They are also seen as targeting the border population of India and luring them towards a better life in Chinese villages, apart from keeping an eye on any incursions. As every village will have a party official, there are concerns about these officials being able to do political work in areas across the border because of the similarity of culture. According to save Tibet, which is an international advocacy group working for the freedom of Tibetans, the villages are also intended to act as a security barrier between Tibet and the rest of the world having been constructed mostly on the routes used by the Tibetans to cross over to India and Nepal.

Why should India be concerned?

In January 2021, NDTV released a report showing a Chinese village with approximately 100 houses on the banks of the Tsari Chu river in the Long ju area of Arunachal Pradesh. According to the report, the village is approximately 4.5 km inside Indian territory. Even though the region is shown as a part of India in the official maps of the Surveyor General of India, it has been in effective Chinese control for the last six decades. The Ministry of External Affairs, while not categorically denying the presence of the said village, stated that it rejects China’s unjustified claims and illegal occupation in the region. But General Bipin Rawat- India’s Chief of Defence Staff at the time- refuted the presence of any village inside India’s perception of the LAC, adding that the villages on the Chinese side are for ‘billeting and locating’ their civilians, and probably their military in the future. Denying that the construction of these villages was a part of Chinese flexing their strength against India, the CDS argued how India should also focus on increasing connectivity to the border areas. The report was also rejected by the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Pema Khandu. 

Another report indicated the presence of a second village, 93 km away from the first one in the Shi-Yomi district of Arunachal Pradesh with satellite images showing a Chinese flag painted from the rooftop of one of the houses. This was also subsequently denied by the Indian army. The issue came to light again in November 2021, when the US Department of Defence passed a reference to these villages in its Annual report on military developments involving China. It’s statement that the Indian Army was aware of the presence of these villages since at least the past year led to emphatic debates about China’s intransigence and the overall condition on the border, especially in the eastern sector. The Chinese state media labelled the state’s actions as ‘beyond reproach’ as it didn’t recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India and hence was well within its powers to undertake such a project.

The five fingers of the Tibetan palm, a strategy espoused by Mao and used by the officials in the 1950s considers Xizang (Tibet) as the right palm of the Chinese state, responsible for liberating the fingers- Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), present-day Arunachal Pradesh. With Nepal and Bhutan independent countries and Sikkim, Ladakh and NEFA inalienable part of India, it becomes important for us to view the construction of these villages as a manifestation of this strategy. The recent clash at Galwan valley in the west, the clash at  Naku La in Sikkim and the construction of a village 2.5 km inside Bhutanese territory are some points of concern. Along the Indian border, the villages are spread from the Rutok prefecture in the west to Rima in the Lohit valley in the east. There are also a few villages on the Chinese side of the LAC in Ladakh and the Tsona area. 

What can India do to counter Chinese aggression- Making the eastern sector a priority 

Kibithu in Anjaw district is in the easternmost administrative circle in India. Housing dozens of villages within the 10 km range of the McMohan line, the villagers are fluent in Hindi because of their regular interaction with the security forces but do not have proper connectivity with the mainland. Having been subjected to a significant military deployment since independence, they are accustomed to a military presence. But depopulation is a case of concern in the border villages in all areas of India. After trade with Tibet stopped post the 1962 Indo-China war, many frontier villages dependent on trade were deserted with people moving to the plains for better economic and professional opportunities. This is also visible in the west where close to 3000 ‘ghost’ villages exist in Uttarakhand. 

After the 1962 war, the Nehru administration decided against undertaking border development fearing an increased advantage for China in case it decided to intrude. But in the current situation, with India caught in an unfavourable neighbourhood, there is an urgent need for it to focus on strengthening its frontier regions- not just building critical military infrastructure but also working towards better integrating the populations with the mainland, taking a more development centred approach rather than directing all its actions to contain China. The ‘difference’ in the infrastructure development between the two countries was also exhorted by the External Affairs Minister at the beginning of this year. The Border Area Development Programme, which began in 1980 for the western border now covers 390 blocks of 111 border districts in 16 states and Union Territories. In the 2020-21 fiscal year, ₹784 crores were allocated to border states and UTs based on the length of the border and population, a fall from the ₹825 crores allocated in the previous fiscal with emphasis on building villages and towns while also allocating resources on building roads, bridges, culverts, schools and health infrastructure. Mechanisms to undertake social audits and create a positive perception amongst the people are also being adopted. According to some sources the government is now focusing on equipping the forces stationed in the border areas with sufficient knowledge of the Chinese language as well as culture to train them better. The eastern sector involves questions of territory as well as allegiance, with a diverse cultural composition and the distinct nature of the tribes making it more important than the cartographic importance of the West.

Efforts to stem migration from the frontier and enhanced funding have also been taken regularly but the Government’s focus should be on creating adequate facilities- both economic and welfare so that the people can earn their livelihood. Steps should be taken to enhance wool production, carpet weaving, and other industries that are more viable in the region along with increasing inter-village trading. The government can also consider the prospect of resuscitating the defunct Indian Frontier Administrative Service, calls for which have been made in different quarters. A central tool in shaping India’s border policy during the 1950s, it was based on an understanding and connection with the local people, with its focus on the development of the region. The emphasis should be on mainstreaming local voices.

Conclusion

Following a salami-slicing technique, China is trying to accrue incremental gains in its boundary disputes with India as well as Bhutan to place itself in a more advantageous position in their resolution. The step towards inhabiting the villages is aimed at establishing sovereignty through the presence of civilians in a territory. The Chinese state-run  Global Times deemed India’s reaction as exaggerated and a consequence of its hypersensitive nature. Testimonies of locals marvelling at their better lifestyle in these villages are also frequently made to legitimise the state’s actions. Citing the dismal conditions of these border regions in India and the reported dissent from the locals, India is blamed for targeting China to deflect attention from its domestic shortcomings. 

The rhetoric of the Xi Jinping led government has only increased in tempo in the past few months, with actions on the ground, like the construction of civilian villages and the promulgation of a new ‘Land borders law’ to legitimise the military’s actions in the eastern sector simultaneously accompanied by symbolic acts like the renaming of 15 places in Arunachal Pradesh. The attempts by China to change the facts on ground should be of great concern to India. With the talks on the border dispute not seeing any positive development, it is imperative for New Delhi to scale its infrastructure in the border areas, especially in the east while taking along the needs of the local population. 

Shivam Shekhawat is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science where she was a Commonwealth Scholar. She is interested in studying about India’s neighbourhood, particularly India’s relationship with China and its response to the situation in Afghanistan and Myanmar. Her interests also lie in analyzing contemporary conflicts through a historical lens and the factors which affect a country’s response to humanitarian crises.

North Korea’s Cyber-offensive: Implications for India

North Korea’s Cyber-offensive: Implications for India

By – Divyanshu Jindal;

The anatomy of global conflicts is rapidly changing. With the focus of both state and non-state actors shifting towards exploiting the cyber domain for inflicting damage on their adversaries, cyber security has emerged as a key domain for geopolitical considerations. 

In the last few years, India has witnessed an exponential increase in cyber-attacks. India’s cyber susceptibilities have also been highlighted in several rankings and reports. In a volatile regional geopolitical dynamic (with both Pakistan and China able to collude with North Korea), India stands at a risk of an impending proxy cyberwar. However, there emerges an argument on whether New Delhi can feel Pyongyang’s pulse and diplomatically engage with the Kim regime to convey the importance of positive India-North Korea relations. 

Why North Korea stands apart 

There have been major cyber-attacks in the past few years by groups associated with the North Korean regime. The 2017 WannaCry  (the largest ransomware attack in history), the 2018 South Korean Ministry of Defence breach to steal arms procurement and next-gen fighter aircraft plans as well as the 2019 breach of India’s Kudankulam nuclear power plant – to steal proprietary information on thorium-based reactor, are some of the incidents that made headlines. 

As it seeks funds while reeling under heavy sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN), the Kim regime has looked towards cyber-crimes and China’s support to run the country. With fault lines emerging between the West (the United States and Europe) and the eastern partners (China and Russia) over dominance in every sphere, the possibility of North Korea becoming China’s ‘Cyber Arm’ raises concerns, especially for nations with weaker cyber defence capacities.  

In recent past, the North Korean hacking groups have targeted institutions like the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, and several South Korean think tanks and security-related institutions; British drug maker AstraZeneca, and various other health bodies, drugmakers, and vaccine scientists working on the COVID-19 vaccines; the Central Bank of Bangladesh in 2016 (theft of $81 million); and Sony pictures in 2014. The groups used phishing emails as a common strategy, targeting experts to gain classified or proprietary information. The targets were contacted through fake job offers or by mimicking family and friends to install data-gathering malwares on the target systems, thus exploiting a lack of cyber security standards and awareness. Over the years, the North Korean cyber groups have increasingly improved their sophistication levels and have been able to exploit operating system vulnerabilities and use decentralised routes like cryptocurrencies for ransoms. The growing aggressiveness by North Korea in this sphere becomes a cause of concern, given the inability of diplomatic pressures as well as sanctions, to force the North to lower the cyber warfare being inflicted from its side North Korea has desire. The ‘Naming and Shaming’ approach – the practise of public singling out a person, company, government etc., for doing an illegal act, in order to cause public embarrassment- has also been ineffective in light of the North’s open defiance of the global order.

The North’s cyber prowess is often observed with astonishment, considering the degree of self-isolation the ruling regime has imposed on the nation, as well as due to years of sanctions restricting the country’s technical advancement on wider level. In the last one and a half decades, the North has been cut off from the global financial system and almost all sources of foreign investments. The North Korean leader equates the importance of cyber capabilities to that of nuclear power.  He is deemed to have stated that “Cyberwarfare is an all-purpose sword that guarantees the North Korean People’s Armed Forces ruthless striking capability, along with nuclear weapons and missiles”. This signifies the regime’s focus on achieving superior cyber offensive skills as a means to defend against its rivals. North Korea’s case is different than other nations like China or Russia who are often alleged to be backing the cyber criminals but cannot be explicitly linked with them.

Although many attacks might be state sponsored, there also exists a considerable degree of freedom exercised by these criminals’ groups in their conduct. This is seen as an explanation (or an excuse) for Chinese origin cyber-attacks on Russia and vice-versa, as well as Russian origin cyberattacks on India. Generally, cyber-attacks provide a large extent of deniability to the states backing them in absence of proofs to establish a direct link. 

However, as access to internet remains limited to only the North’s elites, comprising about 0.1 percent of the population, and an extremely severe form of monitoring and restriction is imposed inside the country, the cyberattacks originating from the groups associated with the North Korean regime are deemed directly as state sponsored. Severe restrictions on foreign travel and stay for North Korean citizens also makes it improbable for North Korean groups to conduct operations without the leadership’s knowledge. This makes the Kim regime a hostile state actor in the cyber domain.   

Concerns for India: Diminishing ties and the rising China-North Korea Axis

The India-North Korea relations are generally characterized by friendship, cooperation and understanding. India participates in the biennial Pyongyang International Film festival, welcomes North Korean students in Indian academic institutions under Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, and extends humanitarian assistance consisting of food, medicine, and essential goods like blankets and polythene sheets on a regular basis. It is argued that India-North Korea ties are a legacy from India’s non-aligned status during the cold war, uplifted post-cold war by India’s welcoming stance to engagements with the North, even when the western consensus deemed the North’s regime problematic. 

Despite desires for deeper contacts, India-North relations have remained limited in backdrop of international sanctions on North Korea. This extends to both the economic and political spheres. While Indian public and private entities remain averse to making investments in North Korea, India’s ‘dialogue diplomacy’ to promote establishment of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula has not  lead to substantive results. In comparison, China’s heft in North Korea’s strategic considerations have grown exponentially. 

Beijing stands among Pyongyang’s major allies in global arena. It supports North Korea’s defence through a 1961 alliance treaty and there exists a heavy dependence on Chinese fuel and food imports. Although Beijing has criticized Pyongyang’s missile tests on several occasions, it enjoys the strategic costs that Pyongyang’s rogue stance incurs on the West. The US maintains a force of around 28,500 soldiers in South Korea to deter any aggression by the North, along with constant monitoring of its activities. 

The North also creates a mediating role for Beijing in regional tensions with Japan, and South Korea. It is now widely accepted that Beijing’s role will be paramount in Korean de-nuclearization – if at all. Given how China seeks to shape its global image in the post pandemic world – Pyongyang can be Beijing’s trump card in cyber space. Without being accused of leading any cyber offensive against the West, China can utilize North Korean cyber capabilities to attain its objectives.  

A report by a US-based think-tank highlighted that in 2020 the North Korean hacking groups targeted at least six pharmaceutical companies that were working on the COVID-19 treatments. It remained unclear whether North Korea was attempting to create its own vaccine or vying to sell the stolen information to some foreign company or government. Considering the lack of infrastructural resources in North Korea to develop own vaccines and China’s failures to come up with an efficient vaccine, it is not far from imagination that China would have been the main beneficiary for any cyber exploits through these cyberattacks. This remains true for any stolen information from the US, India, Israel, Japan, South Korea, or even Russia, which can accelerate Chinese projects to attain technical superiority.

The Chinese government pursues official academic partnerships with military-affiliated North Korean universities. According to a US army report, North Korea commands an estimated 6,000 cyber agents scattered across the globe. These agents gain the relevant skills while studying at Chinese universities, thus getting access to advanced technology and equipment. There also exists Chinese infrastructural support to North’s hacking groups, an example of which came to light during the 2016 cyber heist on the Bangladesh’s central bank. The investigators observed that most of the stolen money ended up in Macau, before being sent to North Korea. 

Attacks on India’s critical infrastructure by North Korean hackers – like Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) attack, and the previously highlighted Kudankulam nuclear power plant attack – would immensely help Beijing in the evolving geopolitical competition against India.    

What are India’s options? 

According to a global survey by a cybersecurity firm – Sophos, India tops the list of top 30 countries vulnerable to ransomware attacks, primarily due to a lack of proper cyber security mechanisms and highly prevalent use of pirated technology. Another report on cyber readiness highlights India among the countries with lowest adoption rates for multi-factor authentication. 

While low cybersecurity awareness at ground levels remains a weak spot in India’s cyber defences, there exists a vacuum in India’s cybersecurity approach which can be filled through multilateral cyber intelligence arrangements. 

India remains a non-signatory to the Budapest convention which stands as the sole binding treaty on cybercrime. It aims at harmonizing national laws, improving investigative techniques, and increasing cooperation among nations. India has expressed concerns regarding cross border data access provisions which impinge on national sovereignty. Instead, India has focused on cyber cooperation on mostly bilateral basis. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has witnessed a developing bifurcation in global geopolitics. The current Joe Biden administration is at odds with both Russia and China at the same time. Experts believe that a collusion between China and Russia could lead to a two-pronged attack on Ukraine and Taiwan, to overwhelm the West’s defensive capacities. 

There is also a growing concern over the rising Chinese dominance in the Indo-Pacific region, which has shifted global focus towards this region. This can be seen in the recent institutionalization of the QUAD (India, Japan, Australia, US) mechanism and the formation of the AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) pact. India is expected to act as a fulcrum for countering Chinese hegemony in the region in most western plans. 

This makes an opportunity for India to look at mechanisms like the Five/Nine/Fourteen Eyes arrangements which focus on intelligence gathering, counterintelligence operations, and law enforcement in the cyber domain. This will need India to make a significant decision towards its cybersecurity strategy for the coming years. 

Conclusion

Hopes for better India-North Korea relations have taken some beating in last few years. While in 2015 India refused a US suggestion to diminish its diplomatic presence in Pyongyang – pointing the need for embassies of some of US’ friendly countries to remain in Pyongyang to continue channels of communication- India has not been able to move closer to the Kim regime. The growing global animosity towards North Korea’s nuclear activities has also led to diminished interactions between New Delhi and Pyongyang. Meanwhile, India’s ties have strengthened with the North’s major adversaries- US, Japan, South Korea. 

Considering the shifting tides in global and regional geopolitics, it might be time for India to consider the developing Xi-Kim nexus and shape India’s cyber diplomacy accordingly. There remains an urgent need for India to develop its cyber defence, improve cyber awareness on ground level, and engage in multilateral avenues to deter cybercrimes.

Divyanshu Jindal is a Doctoral Student at OP Jindal Global University, India and a Research Intern at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyse, New Delhi, India. He is a postgraduate in International Relations with a specialization in economics and foreign policy. He has worked at Fidelity Investments as an Associate Systems Engineer after completing B. Tech in Computer Science from SRM University, India. His writings have appeared at The Lowy institute, BRICS Information Portal, The Quint, 9Dashline, Eurasian Review, Modern Diplomacy, The Geopolitics, among other online platforms. His areas of interests include India-Russia relations, India’s foreign policy, cyber diplomacy, and cyber politics.