Australia and ASEAN: New Challenges to Cooperation

Australia and ASEAN: New Challenges to Cooperation

By – Artyom Garin;

Geostrategic expanse of the Indian and Pacific Oceans into the Indo-Pacific space and the emergence of Quad, designed to balance China, brought the importance of ASEAN to a completely new level. Southeast Asia has become an especially important part in the diplomacy of China, the United States and other actors in the region. Australia is also no exception and is trying to intensify the pace of its involvement in Southeast Asia. However, Canberra’s efforts are accompanied by mixed success, especially due to a change in its foreign policy strategy.

Australia and Quad’s Current Approach to ASEAN

With the development of the United States’, Japan’s and Australia’s visions of the Indo-Pacific, academic discourse has been filled with theses that the ASEAN countries need Quad support to counter the growing power — the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, Beijing is not standing still. The PRC strengths its defence capabilities, economic and humanitarian agenda in the region, but militarization is far from being unilateral.

The fact is that the politicized nature of this concept itself contributes to the militarization of the Indo-Pacific. For example, everyone knows that ASEAN is trying to stop any outbreaks of instability in Southeast Asia and has come a long way to move beyond from the Cold War thinking. However, during the Annual U.S.—ASEAN Summit, the US Navy and Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) decided to conduct exercises in the South China Sea. They included the US aircraft carrier strike group and Japanese helicopter destroyer. As a result, the summit did not appear in most flattering light from the conflict mitigation. Rather, on the contrary.

The ASEAN countries are trying to balance between the United States and China, to benefit from the development of the region, in order to also withstand the consequences of the pandemic. The Association has also published an outlook on the Indo-Pacific, but it is clearly not interested in politicizing this issue, as well as in choosing between the United States and China. This is also confirmed by the Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong’s quote,  “Countries in the region want to have good relations with both, the US and China, and do not wish to take sides”.

One must admire Australia’s steps to strengthen relations with ASEAN during the pandemic, starting from the humanitarian agenda. In 2020, Canberra presented a new strategy ‘Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response’, which focuses on the aid to the South Pacific countries, Timor-Leste and Southeast Asia in healthcare and economy.

However, further attempts to politicize cooperation outweighed quite promising strategy. Some experts have already noticed Australia’s statements related to the ‘China threat’ during bilateral meetings with the diplomats of some ASEAN countries. It put the Australia’s partners from Southeast Asia in an awkward position. According to Australia’s PM Scott Morrison, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are close friends for Australia. However, the aggravation of Australia-China relations can only distance Canberra from ASEAN members.

The AUKUS Factor in Australia-ASEAN Relations

Another step towards ‘ensuring stability’ in the region was the establishment of AUKUS trilateral alliance, which includes Australia, the U.S. and the UK. According to the statements, it is aimed at deepening defence and tech cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. A lot has already been said about AUKUS, so it is better to focus here on the ASEAN members’ perception of the new alliance.

The AUKUS parties assure that it is not directed against any power. However, the nature of this alliance is based on the rivalry between the United States and China. Everyone understands this, including experts, politicians and ordinary observers. Of course, Australia can get new opportunities from AUKUS to strengthen its defence capability. The experts from the Fifth Continent have long been discussing the need of nuclear fleet. However, it will not appear in Australia soon, and it will require great technological, infrastructural and financial efforts.

Nevertheless, the establishment of AUKUS has already influenced the diplomacy. It showed that Australia can cancel previous agreements. Regardless of the statements, the countries will keep this in mind when building further cooperation with Australia – and even the US.

Nuclear submarines are very useful for defence. In the straits between the Pacific Island countries (PICs), Australia can use them imperceptibly, since PICs do not have high-tech capabilities to detect submarines. But potential presence of the Australia’s submarines in Southeast Asia may raise questions.

AUKUS has made Australia a bridgehead for military power projection against the PRC. It is important to remember that the US won’t provide technology for nothing. Probably the price is Australia’s support for the rivalry against the rise of China in the region. The potential permission for Australia’s submarines to access the straits from Indonesia, as the closest ASEAN member, would mean its support for anti-Chinese actions. But the Indonesian authorities are clearly not interested in aggravating relations with China.

Australian diplomats have been working for decades to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia. They have made considerable efforts to show that Australia is one of the regional actors that is ready to cooperate with Asian countries with common future. As a result, common grounds that were established with great difficulty are being threatened in the 21st century. As Australia-China relations get worse, the ASEAN members could temporarily pull away from Canberra.

Malaysia and Indonesia have already expressed concerns about another nuclear submarine fleet. The ASEAN members believe that this makes the region more conflict-prone, not safe. This makes the countries of Southeast Asia think more about the consequences during the dialogue with Australia, which is sharply opposed to China.

Australia has a strong school of diplomacy and analysis in international relations. It’s probably on this basis that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was advised to reassure the ASEAN countries through the media that Canberra doesn’t want to aggravate the situation in the region. It’s not yet known whether his interview helped to convince the leaders from Southeast Asia.

Economy and Trade as a More Productive Way to Ensure Regional Stability

The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Australia and ASEAN could rectify the situation. But it will be difficult to get statements of friendship from one of the concrete Southeast Asian countries in the recent conditions.

The quote of the Director-General of the Department of Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry of China, Liu Jinsong, seemed notable. He said: “Whenever there is crisis or problem in the region, Australia looks to the West for friends, not the East. Australia tried to persuade ASEAN countries to jointly target China, but ASEAN countries won’t do it”. This accurately characterizes the current state of affairs. Notably, Asia accounts for 65,2% of Australia’s bilateral trade. 

During the pandemic era, strengthening economic and humanitarian cooperation with ASEAN members would help Australia gain diplomatic benefits. Southeast Asia needs a favorable environment for developing trade, supply chains, and healthcare. Assertive military agenda is unlikely to find a positive response, especially during the global crisis.

According to forecasts, ASEAN members’ total GDP will grow rapidly by 2050. For example, Indonesia may probably become the 4th largest economy in the world. On the contrary, the Australian economy may decrease. In order to maintain economic growth in the future, Canberra certainly needs to strengthen relations with ASEAN and right now, while the good image of Australia as a reliable economic partner that possesses technology and high-quality goods is still alive.

Recently, Quad has intensified its infrastructure rivalry with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For this purpose, the parties will certainly combine their initiatives — Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (Japan), Blue Dot Network — the U.S., or Pacific Step-Up (Australia). Together, their capital exceeds $100 billion. For now, India wisely decided to abstain from joining and took a careful position on this issue.

Participation in the Quad have spurred Australia to action. In June 2021, together with Germany and Switzerland, it committed to provide about US$13 million to the Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development. We may see more Canberra’s activity in Southeast Asia, but it is still more focused on strengthening its positions in the South Pacific. Besides, as in other areas, the perception of Quad infrastructure initiatives by Southeast Asian countries will still be restrained.

They will not choose political agenda instead of economic well-being. After all, Australia, even together with the United States, will not be able to compensate for the economic costs in case of the potential aggravation of relations between ASEAN and Beijing.


With extensive diplomatic experience, ASEAN is clearly aware of the scale of China’s rise and the US plans to counter it. The countries of Southeast Asia clearly don’t want to become part of this rivalry. They are already facing many challenges, including the impact of the global crisis, the pandemic, the current situation in Myanmar and so on.

The antagonization of Australia against China will also lead to distancing of ASEAN from Canberra. To earn trust in the region, Australia needs to take a different strategy. It’s necessary to reinforce the mutual dialogue on the basics of cooperation for the economic and humanitarian benefits. In the rivalry for ASEAN’s favour, the party that can propose more mutual interests and opportunities for cooperation will certainly win.

Of course, Vietnam, Indonesia and other ASEAN members will continue to build up their defence potential and host politicians from China, the United States, Australia and other countries. However, in the short and medium term, ASEAN will prefer to use the strategy of careful and prudent balancing.

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.

Significance of India’s accelerated outreach to Sri Lanka

Significance of India’s accelerated outreach to Sri Lanka

By- Niranjan Marjani

After a prolonged period of tensions, the relations between India and Sri Lanka are on the mend. Sri Lanka’s growing proximity to China since the present political dispensation came to power in 2015 has been a cause of concern for India. However, both the sides are taking steps towards normalization of their relations since past couple of months. This period has seen acceleration in outreach between India and Sri Lanka. This outreach has been characterized by high profile visits, military exercises and both the countries prioritising relations with each other. 

India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla paid a four-day visit to Sri Lanka at the start of October. During his visit he held talks with the top Sri Lankan leadership which included Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris and Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa. He also reviewed bilateral cooperation during a meeting with the Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage. 

Following Shringla’s visit India’s Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane visited Sri Lanka from 12 to 16 October and interacted with the military as well as the civilian leadership of Sri Lanka. General Naravane’s visit coincided with the India-Sri Lanka military exercise (named Mitra Shakti) which was held from 4 to 15 October at Combat Training School, Ampara, Sri Lanka. 

Later, six ships of Indian Navy’s First Training Squadron arrived in Sri Lanka on October 24 for a four-day visit to participate in a training programme with their Sri Lankan counterparts. This is a milestone in India-Sri Lanka relations as it is the first time that such a large number of Indian Navy ships are visiting Sri Lanka. 

For its part, Sri Lanka released Integrated Country Strategy in July through its Ambassador to India Milinda Moragoda. This strategy focuses on prioritising relations with India and lists out steps to be taken the Sri Lankan Embassy and the Consulates in India to strengthen the bilateral relations. On October 10, Moragoda also met India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and discussed wide ranging issue pertaining to the strategic interests of both the countries. 

Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China which resulted in Chinese presence in close proximity to India had strained India-Sri Lanka relations. The urgency shown by India and Sri Lanka to reset bilateral relations is an outcome of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. For India, this reset would allow it to engage with Sri Lanka as a country in the Indo-Pacific Region and further strengthen relations by way of de-hyphenation of engagements with the Tamils and the Buddhists of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka as a template for India’s counter to the Belt and Road Initiative? 

Although being presented as an economic undertaking, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project has become an instrument of debt trap diplomacy. The loans advanced by China for infrastructure projects are unsustainable for small countries. The inability of these countries to repay the loans often results in China taking over the key infrastructure installations which could double-up as strategic outpost. In case of Sri Lanka, its inability to repay Chinese debts resulted in leasing the Hambantota Port to China for 99 years.

In the past few months, when Sri Lanka has been facing economic crisis, in particular falling foreign exchange reserves, rising food costs and devaluation of cash, it turned to India for help in tiding over this situation. Sri Lanka sought a $500 million credit line from India to enable payment for its crude oil purchases. 

As regards to the food crisis, following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to go for 100% organic farming, Sri Lanka had signed a deal with a Chinese company Qingdao Seawin Biotech Group for the supply of 96,000 tonnes of organic fertilizer and 3,000 tonnes of powdered form of organic fertilizer. But the fertilizer imported from China was found to be contaminated. Here also India stepped in and supplied nano liquid fertilizer to Sri Lanka. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in bridging the gap between India and Sri Lanka. As Sri Lanka battled the third wave of the pandemic in the past two months, India has been supplying liquid medical oxygen to the island nation. India’s economic outreach to Sri Lanka is intertwined with humanitarian assistance during the crisis. India has presented itself as an alternative to China to which Sri Lanka should look forward as a means of diversifying its engagements.  

Sri Lanka as India’s neighbour in the Indo-Pacific Region

The on-going reset in India-Sri Lanka relations should propel India to engage with Sri Lanka as a country in the Indo-Pacific Region. China’s economic ventures in Sri Lanka have resulted in the former gaining a foothold in India’s proximity. In turn, India should approach Sri Lanka as a geopolitical entity in the Indo-Pacific. 

China’s rising profile in South Asia has led to Sri Lanka becoming a competing ground for India and China. Chinese submarines made port calls to Sri Lanka twice in 2014 to which India raised concerns but maintained that it is monitoring Chinese naval activities in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, Sri Lanka rejected a request from China to dock its submarine at Colombo Port to pacify India’s worries. 

Port development in Sri Lanka has also witnessed competition between India and China. In September 2021, India secured a deal to build a strategically important deep-sea container terminal in Sri Lanka. Indian company Adani Group will partner with a local conglomerate John Keells and the Sri Lankan Port Authority (SLPA) for this deal which is worth more than $700 million. This deal is important for India since in February this year Sri Lanka had scrapped an agreement with India and Japan for development of East Container Terminal at Colombo Port.

India must build upon this accelerated outreach to Sri Lanka in the strategic domain. Strong relations with Sri Lanka should further consolidate the trilateral cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. India’s growing engagements with Sri Lanka and Maldives could lead to a cohesive response to China’s strategic encirclement of India by way of string of pearls. This could strengthen India’s manoeuvring in the Indo-Pacific Region.     

The de-hyphenation factor

For a major part of past seven decades, India’s policy towards Sri Lanka was dominated by the issue of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This very factor has been the cause of Sri Lanka being wary of India’s posturing. India’s stand on the Tamil issue of Sri Lanka was also linked to the domestic politics in the state of Tamil Nadu. For India to view Sri Lanka as a neighbouring country in the Indo-Pacific Region, a shift in the approach was necessary which is visible in India’s recent outreach. India’s present approach marks a de-hyphenation in relations with Sri Lanka which implies that India would appeal to the Buddhist identity of Sri Lanka as much as it cares for the Tamils. 

India has been pressing Sri Lanka on implementation of 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution which was passed in 1987. This amendment allows for the devolution of power to the provincial councils. Foreign Secretary Shringla, during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, once again emphasised on India’s commitment to protect the rights of the Tamils through full implementation of the 13th Amendment. 

India’s commitment towards the Tamils of Sri Lanka is evident from the fact that after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, India has been involved in the reconstruction work in the Tamil-majority Northern Provinces. Since 2011 India has been involved in infrastructure development such as housing projects, building railway lines, renovation of schools and construction of hospitals. 

While concerns about the Tamils do exist, India is moving towards de-hyphening of its engagements between the minority Tamils and the majority Buddhists. India has taken steps towards strengthening the cultural links with Sri Lanka by evoking Buddhism. In a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa held in September 2020, India announced a grant of $15 million to Sri Lanka for the promotion of the Buddhist ties between both the countries.

On October 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Kushinagar International Airport in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The construction of airport would improve connectivity to Kushinagar, which is one of the most important pilgrim sites of Buddhism. It was here that Gautam Buddha attained Mahaparinirvana. The first international flight to land at this airport was from Sri Lanka. On board this flight was a delegation led by Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister Namal Rajapaksa. Around 100 senior Buddhist monks, 4 State Ministers and other senior officials accompanied him.  

The cultural outreach to Sri Lanka indicates that the current Indian political dispensation is ready to de-hyphenate its engagements with the Tamils on one hand and the Buddhists on the other which are in majority in Sri Lanka. Culture is one of the areas through which India can diversify its ties with Sri Lanka. Close engagements with the Sri Lankan government are important for India in order to gain strategic advantage in the region. New Delhi is leveraging the historical soft power connections between the two countries to consolidate its position vis-à-vis China in South Asia. 

Niranjan Marjani is a Political Analyst specializing in international relations and geopolitics. His areas of work are India’s foreign policy, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific Region, Europe and Spain. He is also the Consulting Editor of The Kootneeti Español, a New Delhi-based Spanish-language magazine on international relations. He tweets at @NiranjanMarjani


China’s Emerging Status: COP 15 and The Dream of Ecological Civilization

China’s Emerging Status: COP 15 and The Dream of Ecological Civilization

By – Abhishek Sharma

The policy shift observed in the U.S with the coming of the Biden Administration has again put global issues at the forefront, and one of that is Climate Change. COP26 is the flagship event where negotiations and discussions on climate change will begin in November at Glasgow, Scotland. However, another vital conference has taken place before that in Kunming, China: UN COP 15(15th Conference of the Parties) biodiversity summit was held in the capital of Yunnan province in China. China hosted the ambitious COP15 meeting online for the first round of talks and will follow this in April 2022 for the second round in person. This special summit allows China to project its leadership in the domain of biodiversity conservation, which has been an area where China has attracted a lot of criticism; COP15 presents to China a possibility to influence and direct a framework with an inclusive-global vision for the year 2030. One of those recommended targets is ‘30 by 30’, which plans to give protected status to 30 % of lands and oceans, already supported by many nations. This same target is also considered controversial in many countries: COP15 presents to China such challenges which are complex and need extensive deliberations and negotiations among countries, NGOs, civil society and more. These are just some obstacles which are exacerbated with pandemic restrictions in China. This article is looking at China’s vision for COP15 in continuation of the failure of Aichi Biodiversity targets. How can China navigate through the challenges it faces regarding creating consensus within the international community amidst its own environmental violations? What is China’s domestic approach in directing the framework for biodiversity conservation at the international level to further its own climate diplomacy?

The world is looking forward to discussing Climate Change at COP 26, in Glasgow, Scotland, where all major heads of states are expected to participate under the post-Brexit Global Britain. However, another major event has taken place in Kunming, China. This was the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) Summit. This summit took place under the Chinese leadership, which seems now more participatory and responsible for climate negotiations and biodiversity protection compared to a decade earlier. What made COP15 crucial for the world, and particularly China, was the failure of COP10 at Aichi, Japan, in 2010. At Aichi (COP10), the 220 targets aimed to fulfill the conservation of environmental habitat till 2020 were not achieved by the international community. Therefore, China via COP15 sought to achieve substantial commitments from the global community on biological diversity conservation to create a more integrated framework response on climate change adaptation and mitigation. However, the COP15 summit must also be seen as a political opportunity for China to influence and shape biological diversity conservation vision until 2050, especially when Beijing itself is largely under criticism for its own environmental transgressions. In addition, by leveraging the COP15 summit, China would like to change the international community’s perception of China’s ability to create consensus on international agreements towards a conclusive arrangement on climate protection, helping build its image as an international environmental leader.

China’s Interest in Shaping International Climate Negotiations and Climate Diplomacy

China has been traditionally seen as a state inclined to pursue a position preferring  its political interests over the global good, especially as the importance of global (liberal) norms, rules, and laws has been challenged by China. Nonetheless, under President Xi’s leadership, China is now more assertive at the global stage in shaping negotiations, discussions, and policies on issues ranging from climate change to security. Beijing’s strategy has been leveraging global norms to pursue its political objectives, be it in expanding territoriality in the South China Sea or trade policies at WTO. The focus of China has been to bend the rules in its favor, not that other states are innocent of these allegations, even powerful states like the U.S have faced backlash for violating international norms and rules.

After its economic success and shaping major trading agreements successfully, China now feels that it can play a significant role in non-conventional security domains that challenges the global community, such as climate change and biological diversity conservation. Being a large state with a billion-plus population, it places China at an advantage to even drive the direction, and leverage it for its benefit.

Climate negotiations are not just routine diplomatic engagements between states, these are now more of jostling between powerful states, particularly U.S and China for hedging their own political objectives and interests. The political interests manifest toady mainly in the domain of geo-economics, where contested interests of states clash on the issues of intellectual property, clean-tech, and green energy technology. To ensure that the interests are protected, states like China have invested more in climate/environmental diplomacy. However for China this is not just about geo-economics alone but also about its broader geostrategic objectives. Climate negotiations gives China an opportunity, as mentioned earlier, the power to influence and shape the rules of the international multilateral framework on new emerging issues of climate finance, green technology, and resilient infrastructure, considered as new engines of future economic growth. At the same time, it helps to institutionalize structures within Multilateral institutions like the UN, and UNEP which favors its geostrategic objectives. China’s objection for grant to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary at the Global Environment Facility council is just one example of China’s incremental leveraging power at multilateral forums.

China’s contemporary climate diplomacy is closely linked with issues of human rights, market access, trade and security, that it thinks can be leveraged with western countries during negotiations. The trilateral meeting of China with Germany and France, and reiteration of China’s commitment towards climate change mitigation was a signal of China’s emerging climate diplomacy in absence of U.S leadership. China’s Climate diplomacy rise comes in the backdrop of the downward trajectory of bi-lateral relations between China and the U.S, after Trump came to power, and its continuation with the Biden administration. Increasing geopolitical developments are overshadowing the cooperation between China and the U.S, the ban on solar panel material by U.S, and the rare earth material exports curbs by China used in wind turbines and electric vehicles to the U.S is just one area. 

Increasingly now China’s climate diplomacy is seen by many as a tool to achieve political and economic commitments from developed countries, without any accountability or compromise of its economic interests. However there exists different perspectives on China’s Climate Diplomacy too, author like Feng Renjie’s  The Making of China’s Climate Diplomacy has emphasized on the two-level game theory, bringing in the influence of both international and domestic influence on China’s position. But some would argue that this shift coincides with the peak of China’s economic growth, Communist Party of China (CCP) only guarantee (economic growth) to hold onto power. China’s changed position on Climate Diplomacy reaffirms its Common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) intersectionality with economic growth.

Are China’s Commitments Enough?

There has been a lack of linkage between the conference of parties on climate change and biological diversity. This weak interlinkage has been a subject of contention for environmental experts and activists, who have advocated for a closer coordination between the two. Chinese President Xi, in his address, tried to link the issue of Biodiversity protection with the challenge of Climate Change. President Xi said a ‘sound ecology and environment is not just a natural asset but also an environmental asset, and it affects the momentum of social and economic development.’ The focus of the whole speech of President Xi was on the issue of breaking the traditional binary between humans and nature. This is even reflected in the slogan of the COP15 that is Ecological Civilization: Building a shared future for all life on Earth.

The Chinese approach at COP15 is focusing on finding intersectionality between the issue of biodiversity conservation with the broader issue of Climate change which will be discussed at COP26. China, a significant stakeholder, has tried to align COP15 with the upcoming COP26 by creating a broad consensus with developing countries and announcing financial assistance. A divide between developed and developing states has also been an obstacle in Climate Change negotiations. Recent steps taken by China have shown its intentions to take a more prominent role in driving the negotiations on Climate change towards sustainability, be it a net-zero target by 2060 or the stopping of building new coal-fired power projects overseas. These steps will help the global community efforts in Climate Mitigation; at least on paper.

In   this   context, a   report  by   Global  Energy  Monitor  stated  that  the  announcement of cancellation of 44 coal plants overseas could reduce 30 million tons per year of carbon emission. However, the Coal Finance pledge by President Xi does take into account the domestic  coal  plants  and coal production, which accounts for half of the world. However, the current coal crisis happening in China points to the challenges of reduction in consumption of coal, which affects the Chinese target of moving to renewables. This one aspect just shows the complex nature of ambitious targets on Climate Mitigation, and the difficulty to achieve them. On Climate Change, a lot has been announced by China that sounds promising, but it remains to be seen how it will take shape going forward.

A UUN Report states that not even a single target out of 20 has been fully met. Out of 20 targets, China is on track on 16 Aichi’s targets, three of which are exceeded. In a journal publication on Biodiversity conservation in China, the authors have acknowledged China’s progress in biological diversity conservation in the area, such as Panda conservation and increasing forest cover, however, they have also touched upon the challenges of the lack of comprehensive policy that takes both Economic development and Ecology conservation together. The White Paper on Biodiversity released by China before COP15 reiterated the criticality of governance and biodiversity conservation and raised the latter to national strategy. Therefore, it appears that China’s overall strategy and policies on Biodiversity conservation point towards a direction of aligning it with the economic development that is human-centric. 

China has taken initiatives that shows its intention towards conservation and protection of biological diversity. China’s ecological conservation red line initiative aims at carbon sequestration that address climate change mitigation through protection of at least 25 percent of country’s land and sea. Similarly, China aims to raise its overall forest coverage from 23.04 percent from 2019 to 24.1 percent by the end of 2025, planting 36,000 sq. km of new forest a year. However, the policy doesn’t match the practical outcomes. Many experts have pointed out that the ambitious Ecological Conservation red line initiative lacks any solid legal basis which gives the local governments enough room to bypass regulations, effectively making the redline system a paper tiger. Another study revealed that the much of china’s new tree cover consists of sparse, low plantations and shrubs, that are unlikely to provide the same benefits as natural forests. Even china’s afforestation policy in arid and semi-arid region of northern china, shows that lack of tailoring of local environmental conditions(focusing on use of inappropriate species), have compromised its efforts to achieve environmental policy goals.    

 COP15 Outcomes

After the conclusion of the first round of the COP15 summit at Kunming from 11-15 October 2021 virtually, there are indications of hope through the adoption of the Kunming Declaration. The declaration reiterated the 2050 Vision for Biodiversity: Living in harmony with nature and recalling the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to be aligned across environmental, social, and economic dimensions in alignment with the 2050 Vision. The declaration points towards a renewed focus on adopting an effective post-2020 global biodiversity framework (GBF) next year in April 2022. Some visible actions by China were also noticed at the COP15; Xi in his address, announced a $233 million(1.5 billion Yuan) Biodiversity protection fund to support developing countries. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of Conference on Biological Diversity, appreciated and applauded the Chinese leadership in supporting the developing countries and enhancing South-South cooperation in an interview with China Daily.

The overall atmosphere at COP15 was positive and highly hopeful as it was only the first meeting to create consensus among the global community on the way forward for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. The major challenge lies ahead for China when the second meeting will take place at Kunming in April 2021, where significant issues will be negotiated and discussed. If China succeeds in achieving substantial commitments from the global community in the next round of meeting, it will enhance the status of China more with the absence of the U.S at the COP15. It remains to be seen whether China will leverage the opportunity, or this will turn out to be the second Aichi. Concurrently, it is also important to note that climate diplomacy remains one key area wherein the US and China have the potential to collaborate; but for this, both sides must not only engage in hosting/leading discussions, but also implementing and ensuring implantation of declarations and goals pass. 

Abhishek Sharma holds a Masters degree in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy.

Russia at a crossroads: an alliance for its own good or a junior partner of China?

Russia at a crossroads: an alliance for its own good or a junior partner of China?

By – Radomir Romanov

The creation of AUKUS poses a question for Moscow: what should Russia do? A new geopolitical configuration is emerging. 

The United States is regrouping its forces. It is not easy for them to do this: they are running out of sources of popular energy that feeds retention of world domination. But Western civilization cannot afford to lose it – for it is tantamount to geopolitical demotion in rank. Therefore, the West is preparing for a decisive battle for world leadership.

China, for its part, is preparing to confront and contest. However, even now, without taking into account the countries of the EU and Southeast Asia (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and, most likely, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and India will take an anti-Chinese position), NATO and AUKUS are militarily stronger than the PRC. Beijing urgently needs a strong ally. The Russian-Chinese military alliance could counterbalance the Western alliance, and, creating a stalemate, return the world to the era of global confrontation during the Cold War, when the sides, avoiding a direct frontal clash, are fighting each other on the periphery in third countries.

However, the West is not satisfied with this alignment. Its resources are running out, and in the long run it risks losing another Cold War. Therefore, it is necessary either to drag Russia over to its side, or, in the worst case, to ensure its neutrality (preferably friendly towards the West). hence, the struggle for influence over Russia is already under way.

Will there be an analogue of NATO in the Asia-Pacific region?

The speed at which the Quad’s dialogue was institutionalized, its level raised and the scope of the issues discussed expanded is impressive. At the last summit, the leaders decided to meet annually, and the list of areas of interaction was replenished with infrastructure development, cybersecurity, space, production chains, education (in addition to combating the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, cooperation in the field of new technologies and, in fact, ensuring maritime security, with which it all began) being added. The ideological component has also strengthened – Quad, as it is repeatedly noted in a joint statement, upholds “free, open and rule-based order”, as well as “democratic values” in the engineering and technical development.

Behind most of the topics mentioned, with varying degrees of evidence, there is an anti-Chinese (and latently anti-Russian) subtext. “Safe, effective and quality” vaccines are a counterbalance to the vaccines distributed by Beijing (and Moscow) in the region and the world, doubts about the safety and effectiveness of which are regularly heard in the Western media. Climate change is a criticism of the “contribution” of the PRC (and Russia) to global carbon dioxide emissions. 

Assisting states in creating “quality” infrastructure (a synthesis of the Japanese initiative of the same name called Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI)) the US led Blue Dot Network (BDN) and Build Back Better World as well as the corresponding plans of the G7 and the EU have been created as a response to the Chinese Belt and Road. Value chains and 5G technologies – relocation of sensitive semiconductor industries from the PRC and doubts about the transparency of the products of Chinese telecommunications giants have been raised. With threats to cybersecurity and democratic values, everything is already on the surface – the culprits have been identified for a long time. Such an agenda fits into Washington’s strategy, the key tasks of which are the restoration of the leading role of the United States, countering China and ousting Russia from the region. In this context, the statement about the transformation of Quad into an instrument for the implementation of American ITS finds another confirmation.

At the same time, attention is drawn to the fact that naval cooperation is actually eroded in the final documents of the summit. Cooperation at sea is mentioned; however, it is not detailed and is generally lost against the background of other spheres. In addition, old projects that have already been agreed in other formats are brought under the Quad brand. For example, the 1.2 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines promised to the world can hardly be considered the merit of the four-way partnership. There are two explanations for this situation. The Quad is either deliberately hiding successes in the military-political field, or is trying to compensate for the slippage on this fundamentally important track with successes on others. Given the presence of India in the bloc, whose interests are by no means identical to those of the United States, the second option is more likely.

On the whole, the very participation of New Delhi in such an alliance can be considered a success of the strategists who conceived an “anti-Chinese NATO”. India and China are, of course, natural competitors. However, India is not interested in raising the level of tension – as the only country in the Quartet with a land border with the PRC, it is more susceptible to the consequences of the classic security dilemma. In addition, New Delhi as a whole would like to avoid being drawn into the unfolding US-China confrontation and take advantage of its (as far as possible) neutral role promising considerable benefits. It is no coincidence that Indian ITS is the least confrontational and most inclusive (in these parameters it is comparable to the Indo-Pacific ASEAN Vision).

Apparently, the choice of topics for Quad’s cooperation was largely dictated by the aforementioned position of India and was the result of the “art of the possible”. On the one hand, the summit demonstrated the focus of the Quadrilateral at deepening cooperation on topics relevant to the region. On the other hand, it bypassed the sharp corners of its most sensitive topics for Beijing. In this regard, it seems that the symbolic significance of the Quad now exceeds the practical one.

In this context, the launch of the American-British-Australian partnership AUKUS in the military-technical sphere, which took place shortly before the event, is noteworthy. Probably, these two formats should be perceived as links in the same chain. AUKUS is aimed at containing China in the military-political field, Quad (if India’s position does not undergo fundamental changes) in the rest.

Returning to the question posed in the title – no one, except the United States, is ready for a legally formalized anti-Chinese alliance. And Washington now does not have the resources that it possessed in post-war Europe on the eve of NATO’s creation in order to push through the formation of a similar structure in the APR. At the same time, as practice shows, the very models of military blocs of the 20th century are becoming a thing of the past. They are being replaced by ad-hoc ad-hoc associations of interests without long-term commitments and cumbersome bureaucratic machinery.

Cooperation within the Quad will undoubtedly continue and acquire new topics (mostly non-military). Most likely, in various formats, with the rights of, say, dialogue partners, other countries of the region, more or less interested in containing China, will also join it. At the same time, the creation of a defensive alliance like NATO seems unlikely. However, the question of which is more dangerous – a monolithic structure or a network of flexible coalitions – remains open.

What is Russia to do today? 

To immediately create an alliance with the PRC means to become Beijing’s junior led partner; to cooperate with the West means to be deceived: the West will certainly deal with Russia after it has dealt with China.

In the foreign policy sphere, it is necessary to enlist the support of serious allies. The states of the former USSR cannot be regarded as such due to the meagerness of their military potential. However, they cannot be abandoned either: Russia needs to control these territories, which make up the zone of our geopolitical security.

Iran and India, two civilization countries, should be regarded as serious allies. With Tehran, Russia’s interests coincide in many areas; we have common opponents. Today, the Islamic Republic is on the brink of war with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and possibly with Israel and the United States. It is clear that it will not get any easier. Therefore, the union and close economic cooperation are objectively necessary for both Moscow and Tehran.

It is more difficult with India: trade and economic cooperation between the two countries leave much to be desired. However, there are prospects in this direction. In military-technical terms, the Indians are highly dependent on the supply of Russian weapons. In addition, India is extremely cautious about participation in the anti-Chinese bloc, fearing to subordinate its interests to the interests of the West. At the same time, neither Tehran nor New Delhi will objectively strive to make the Russian Federation a junior. Rather, this will be an equal partnership in which friendly neutrality can be observed with respect to the PRC.

However, in order for potential partners to be interested in cooperation, it is necessary to resolve issues of internal development. Iin the public sphere – this is the acquisition of a nationwide ideology. In the economic sphere – “new industrialization” and the fastest solution of tasks to stifle the economy, in the political sphere – ensuring the inviolability of the belt of geopolitical security. In social – the elimination of poverty, a fair redistribution of national income.

Only by solving these internal and external tasks will Russia be able to pursue an effective foreign policy in its own interests.

Radomir Romanov is Senior Officer of Asia-Pacific International Institutions and Multilateral Cooperation Studies Center at the Far Eastern Federal University. He completed his Bachelors in “Interpretation and Translation Studies” at the Department of Japanese Studies and Masters from Cchool of International Relations at the Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages.

Myanmar’s Game of Twister- International Confusion over Myanmar Coup

Myanmar’s Game of Twister- International Confusion over Myanmar Coup

By- Aanchal Pannu

Myanmar’s new government seems to have proven both opportunity and misfortune to many in International Politics. Having overthrown the democratic government, Myanmar’s military seems to have confused the rest of the world on how best to respond to the situation, leaving many of their partner and relations seeming quite lost.

The fate of Myanmar’s democracy has once again taken a turn in 2021. The armed forces- Tatmadaw have detained the ruling politicians, in particular State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military has imposed a yearlong state of emergency. The reason for this was the elections where the NLD party won by a considerably large margin. The military, having backed the opposition, claimed fraud and demanded a rerun of the vote. The election commission denied these claims as having no basis and the military reacted by attempting a coup. 

China’s Response 

When the event took place, all eyes in the world seemed to turn towards China, eagerly awaiting their response. However, most seemed to be left unsure of whether to be satisfied or disappointed with China’s reaction. 

Myanmar- China relations could only be described as rocky all the way since 1949. While having great trade relations with China, the country still holds a sense of distrust over China’s interference in internal and external affairs. China is currently Myanmar’s largest trading partner in terms of bilateral trade, the country is also one of the largest arms suppliers and a major source of Foreign Direct Investment. 

China was one of the fastest countries to react in response to the change in leadership. While the response was not a direct condemnation, China has expressed concern at the announcement of the state of emergency. China seems to have largely brushed off the event as merely a “government reshuffle” and has blocked condemnation over the coup in the UN Security Council.

China, at the moment, appears to hold the largest potential of influence over Myanmar’s new change in leadership. While many had hoped for China making use of that influence to bring the Junta Leaders into negotiations, not many were surprised by the lack of condemnation on China’s part. China has been well known for favouring militant groups within Myanmar, even being suspected of having provided arms to these groups. China, previously, also had fairly comfortable relations with leaders of the last military coup that Myanmar had been under. 

The largest concern currently, seems to be the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s plans to establish the China Myanmar Economic Corridor were originally made alongside the deposed government. However, the military leaders appear to be continuing cooperation with China on economic zones as well as their most coveted project- the $2.5 billion Mee Lin Gyiang LNG generating plant which would power a major industrial zone for the Ayeyarwady region. The generals also boasted that they would continue plans for the Kyaukphyu port and special economic zones, which, if constructed, will complete China’s long-coveted access to the Indian Ocean.

China’s largely hands-off policy seems to have emboldened the Junta leaders who have taken the chance to impose violence on the civilian protesters currently rejecting their rule. The anti-China sentiments across the country seem to have greatly increased due to the mentioned developments. The attention of the protesters is now turning to the Chinese-owned factories.

China’s actions in response to the military coup could be seen going one of two ways. The first being exploitation of the situation that Myanmar has now found itself in the international community. Considering the international response, the previous coup, where most large powers in the international community publicly condemned the actions of the military, some even going as far as to impose sanctions. Myanmar seems to yet again be in a similar situation where the country has been politically isolated by the international community. In this first scenario, China is free to exercise complete monopoly over the country. However, this expectation would be an obvious oversimplification of the current relations between the two countries. 

The second would be to consider the drawbacks of backing the military rule in Myanmar. The sentiments of the people would be considerably hostile, and has already begun to turn so. This would have negative effects on the current projects China intends to establish in Myanmar. Another fact to consider was the positive relations that China and the NLD government seem to have been building. Cooperating with the current government could lead to deterioration in progress despite previous efforts. 

India’s Stance on The Coup

China has announced its intention to mediate between the two warring groups in Myanmar, and India, Russia and Vietnam have backed the decision in front of the UNSC. India has largely remained silent on the matter, though has reiterated its continued support of the democratic transition in Myanmar. 

Myanmar is one of the few countries in ASEAN that shares a border with India. Due to this, India is one of the few countries that refugees can escape to. An influx of refugees into Mizoram and Manipur was expected when the coup first established itself, however it still remains a concern for the Indian government. India has signalled that illegal immigration from Myanmar is not welcome and the borders along Myanmar have been sealed. 

India has retained good relations with Myanmar as fellow ASEAN members and had plans to establish the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, however political instability could very well provide an obstacle for extending the highway into Vietnam. 

A third concern for India is the international isolation that Myanmar will have to undergo. With western countries being largely critical of the coup and imposing sanctions, China’s influence on Myanmar would be allowed considerable growth. This could prove quite detrimental towards India’s own security, already having to share a border with Tibet, a state annexed by China. 

India has to tread carefully in terms of their reaction to the coup, because the country has built tentatively good relations with both the military and the democratic government of Myanmar. Any questionable statements could lead to the Junta turning their attention to India’s eastern states that share Myanmar’s borders or break down all of the diplomatic efforts made over the last 25 years. 

Other than sealing their borders, any actual reactions to the “government reshuffle” would have to be made after a period of observation. The political situation could escalate leading to a civil war, due to which India would be forced to deal with the following implications in the North eastern states. 

India’s neutral and at best lukewarm response could, however, be its downfall. It continues engagement with the military forces in Myanmar could lead to a downgrade in credibility in the international community, because of the very clear commitment of crimes against humanity currently taking place. Another factor would be the hostility shown by dissenters against military rule within the country itself. Rebels have already made their distaste towards Chinese corporations and industries in Myanmar and have been eyeing the rest of the country’s allies that have not condemned the coup. 

Whether condemnation or outright support, the political upheaval caused by Myanmar’s military forces, both internally and internationally seems to be set to continue for a while.

Aanchal Pannu
 is a student of International Relations. She is also a writer for The International Scholar. Her research interests lie in Security and Defense. 

New Delhi between Kathmandu-Beijing

New Delhi between Kathmandu-Beijing

By – Samrat Shrestha

The late king Prithivi Narayan Shah, the founder of unified modern Nepal stated that ‘Nepal’ is like “Dui Dhunga Bich Ko Tarul”, a Nepali saying which translates to “A yam between the two big rocks”. This gives us a slight hint of what the position of Nepal is between the two giant nations India and China. Nepal has always been able to maintain a balanced relation with both of these nations from a very long time. There might arise some disputes and disagreements of Nepal with both China and India now and then but no one can deny that Nepal cannot afford to jeopardize its relation in a permanently adverse manner with either of the two Asian giants. In this context, what purview and policies have guided Nepal’s China outlook and what does the future hold for Kathmandu-Beijing ties in context of the New Delhi balance?

Geopolitical significance of Nepal for China

Nepal is situated right in the middle of India and China, the major emerging economies in the world. Nepal has a vital geopolitical significance because of its geography as it is one of the major gateways to central and south Asia for China.  One of the reasons why China has invested so aggressively in Nepal is because of its geographical significance and Nepal can be one of the major routes for China to trade with other Asian economies like India which is already emerging as one of the biggest markets for China.  

Nepal has a significant role in the foreign policy of China as it shares around 1400kms of border with Nepal and it is a major concern for the national security of China’s territory as well. China is already one of the major superpowers of the world and it has already started to have influence on the other nations from its foreign policy strategies . Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the most ambitious projects of 21st century that was put forward by President. Xi which incorporates the development of infrastructures and connect more than a hundred nations via the route that China plans to build by 2049. Although India remains the biggest investor for Nepal , China comes second. There have been many projects in Nepal  under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the major projects that China has pledged to develop  under BRI is the trans-Himalayan railway route that connects Kathmandu with Xigatse via the Kerung border which is located in Rasuwa of Nepal. 

Nepal’s disputes with India and China’s stand

Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake in 2015 that killed around 10000 people and just after few months of the earthquake India imposed a harsh economic blockade in Nepal (although India denies the same). India wanted Nepal to make amendments in the new constitution of Nepal and India showed its disagreements in the constitution that was put forward by Nepal back then. There was a humanitarian crisis in Nepal following the blockade as there was shortage of major essential things that was imported from India like LPG gas, medicines and Petrol. Despite having a “bhai bhai” (elder and younger brothers) relations with India, the tyrannical economic blockade left a grudge in the heart of majority of people in Nepal against India at that time. Although India has always come forward to help Nepal in times of crisis, that one event left a negative mark on Nepal – India relations.  China, however, came forward to help Nepal and supplied essentials via the Kerung (Rasuwa) border and urged India to remove blockade as it was a sign of a hegemony against Nepal. Many international medias also highlighted this issue at that time. 

A previously ongoing dispute between Nepal and India came forward because of the border issues at  Kalapani-Limpiyadhura. According to the Sughauli treaty that Nepal signed with British East India Company in 1815 Nepal claims the territory to be its own. Former Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli released a new map during the midst of the pandemic including the disputed area of Kalapani. India, however, has accused Nepal that it is acting in this way under the influence of China despite not mentioning China directly. The officials of China has not yet released a statement following this matter but it has taken this into consideration.  Despite all the disagreements with India, it still has a very good relations with Nepal and it will remain a “bhai bhai” in the future. There are bilateral talks happening to strengthen the relation with India in all aspects.

China in Nepali Politics

The bilateral diplomatic relations between Nepal and China were officially established in 1955. China was the fifth country that Nepal established diplomatic relations with as a sovereign multiparty democratic nation. The establishment of the diplomatic relation between Nepal and China was one of the major historical events of Nepal. After the establishment of Nepal – China diplomatic relationship, many treaties and agreements were signed between the two nations. There have been many high-level visits as well between the two countries that have helped to strengthen the relationship between Nepal and China.

China has shown its interest in Nepali politics for a long time and it has been a major development partner of Nepal for decades. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has also started its official relation with different political parties of Nepal. Even though the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was groomed with the help of Communist party of India (CPI), NCP had no direct support or material support from Communist Party of China (CPC). However, the leaders of NCP were inspired by the revolutionary work of Mao and followed his path and morals to form a communist party in Nepa. Later the NCP was divided into other parties but they still followed the theories of Mao and the other faction of NCP was formed as Nepal Communist Party (Unified Marxist Leninist) in 1990 which later became oneof the major ruling parties of Nepal.

On the other hand, late B. P. Koirala was elected as the first prime minister of Nepal after being established as a democratic country in 1950. He visited China when he was still in power and established an official bilateral relation of his party Nepali Congress (NC) with the Communist Party of China (CPC) after meeting the Chairman of CPC Mao Zedong.  NC was the first non-communist party from Nepal to establish a bilateral relation with CPC. 

Recently when there was a dispute going on between the two factions {KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal} of NCP, a high-level delegation from Communist Party of China (CPC) visited Nepal to help maintain the relation between two parties. Later it became a controversial topic in Nepal by the opposition parties on why is China interfering in the internal matters of Nepal. This shows us how much China is interested in political stability and overall phenomenon in Nepalese politics. 

Despite not having to release the official statement, China does not want Nepal to accept the counterpart of BRI in Nepal, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). MCC is an American foreign aid agency that provides aid to the developing nations to invest in infrastructures. Some believe that MCC is just another part of Indo Pacific strategy. China is definitely not in the favor of Indo Pacific Strategy because it is viewed as a strategy of USA to mitigate the rise of China as superpower and to minimize its dominance in the global economy. If MCC is passed in Nepal by the government there is no doubt that China is not going to be happy with the decision. However, there is this debate going on in Nepal whether to pass the MCC or not in the parliament of Nepal. Some politicians believe that MCC is just a grant to boost the energy sector in Nepal and nothing more while others believe that MCC will hamper the sovereignty of Nepal as US might deploy its military and create chaos in Nepal. The current Prime Minister, Deuba is known to be more tilted towards India and the USA rather than China from his political background and he is in favor of MCC while some of the leaders from the opposition parties like CPN (UML) are not in the favor of MCC. 

Potential of China-Nepal and Nepal-India ties

Nepal still has a huge amount of trade deficit with both India and China. If Nepal will be able do business in an efficient way with these giant economies there is no doubt that Nepal will head towards prosperity in no time. However, the environment for new startups and businesses are still not favorable in Nepal because of the lack quality education and proper training and more importantly the government policies are not entrepreneurial friendly which requires reforms from the policy level if we want to give capitalism a chance to thrive in Nepal. According to the doing business report of  The World Bank, Nepal falls in the bottom of the list among all the countries in the world which means that the environment is not quite friendly for new businesses to thrive in Nepal. Mother nature has gifted Nepal with so many wonders . The tourism sector of Nepal has a huge potential to attract tourists from all around the globe but it has not been able to do so because of lack of infrastructures and proper services facilities to the tourists. It requires funding from the foreign investors and there are many big investors in China and India willing to invest in Nepal if we can give them the proper environment  to make capital gains by reforming policies and by making it more investment friendly. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Nepal is still very low because of inappropriate policies of the government, high taxes on dividend and things like chronic energy crisis. These things must be reformed in order to attract FDI in Nepal. The total revenue  of Nepal is not enough to make like tourism and energy sectors to thrive without FDIs and grants from big economies like China, India and the USA.

China has been a major development partner of Nepal for a long time; there are many projects that were built using Chinese assistance . Some of the major projects that was made possible from the assistance of China in Nepal are – ‘Ring road’ of Kathmandu, Narayanghat – Mugling highway, hydropower projects like Sunkoshi and Upper trishuli, BP Koirala memorial cancer hospital and so on. There are many other projects going on from the assistance of  China under the BRI in different sectors of Nepal. Some Chinese investors hesitate to invest in Nepal because of its political instability, strikes, high customs duty, and overall lack of investment friendly environment and government policies. However, Nepal is becoming more politically stable after going through many political revolutions and changes throughout the years and the government of Nepal is working on making better policies for foreign investments in Nepal.  There are around 1200 Chinese firms that has invested in Nepal in different sectors mostly in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors.

After India, China is the biggest trade partner of Nepal. However, the trade deficit with both India and China is increasing at an alarming rate since the exports from Nepal to these countries are very low and imports is massive. Different institutions like Federation of Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI), Nepal China Chamber of Commerce of Commerce and Industries (NCCCI) and  Nepal India Chamber of Commerce and Industries (NICCI) are working to promote the export from Nepal to China and India to minimize the trade deficit. Likewise, Nepal heavily relies on India for its imports because of the easy transportation routes and India has been a major trading partner for Nepal from centuries. The trade route of Nepal and China, however, is much more complicated than that of India because of its geography as there lies Himalayas in the north and it is very hard to build roads for transportation. There are projects going on in Nepal China border to promote the trade via the Kerung border.

Nepal has enormous opportunities because of its geographical and geopolitical significance. The center of economic gravity is shifting more and more towards the east and economists predict that it will lie somewhere between India and China in few decades and Nepal must prepare well and make significant changes if it wants to reap the benefits from the massive growth of its two giant and powerful neighbours.

Samrat Shrestha is currently working as a secretary and a researcher at Institute for International Relations Nepal (IIRN). He is an undergraduate student at China Three Georges University (CTGU) with a major in International Relations. His interest span across fields of Politics, Economics, International Relations, Foreign Policy and Entrepreneurship.

China in Afghanistan: Ambitions, Apprehensions and Opportunities

China in Afghanistan: Ambitions, Apprehensions and Opportunities

By- Shreyas Deshmukh

It was on December 26, 2017 in joint press conference with foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed firm intentions of expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan in a ‘proper manner’. Since then China intensified its efforts towards this direction with the help of Pakistan. A vital segment of this policy was establishing a cordial relationship between Afghanistan (now the Islamic Emirate) and Pakistan which would eventually lead towards partial stability in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it was an opportunity to regain so-called strategic depth and re-establish secure connectivity to Central Asia. It is the same policy of transactional relationship Pakistan has with the US. 

Meanwhile, China continued with its vigilant approach towards developments in Afghanistan and focused only at the political engagement avoiding any major military and economic interventions. The reason would be British, Soviet and American experiences they have observed and studied carefully. Perhaps this also provided an understanding to put Chinese Afghan policy in the hands of Pakistan, because it is the closest ally they have in the region, who understands the national character of Afghanistan better than anyone else. Such third-party transactional relationships may continue in the future as well because Afghanistan is critical fragment of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). After announcement of BRI in 2014 China emerged at the forefront as one of the chief negotiators in the Afghan peace process. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, since 2001-2013, it had 44 high level interactions with Afghan policy makers, but since 2014 until September 2, 2021, just in seven years it had 106 exchanges. 

Afghanistan in China’s Global Ambitions 

Vitality of the success of BRI is at the core of China’s ambition to become a global hegemon. For the last eight years, China has extensively spent economic and political capital to acquiring and building infrastructure projects in Eurasia and South Asia.  Official BRI website has listed six such land connectivity networks of which two westbound networks are the most important segments from strategic perspective as well as its energy and trade security.  These are China – Central Asia – West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC) and China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is located at the centre of North-South Corridor where Central Asian Region countries will have close access to Karachi and Gwadar port in Pakistan. According to a World Bank report, if trade passes through Afghanistan, it will decrease shipping time by 10.3 per cent to 11.9 per cent for countries along the CCWAEC.

Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, or other Iranian ports could be another option, but are subject to volatile US-Iran relations which can lead to trade barriers. If US-China cold war intensifies, and the recent 25-year China-Iran agreement reaches productive implementation, then China will be the dominant force controlling most of the regional maritime and land-based trade routes. 

In early 2016, China started running two pilot projects for freight corridors. The first was from the city of Yiwu located in Eastern China to Tehran via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The second one was from Nantung in East China to Hairatan in Afghanistan via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Later in June 2017, China stopped cargo trains to the dry port of Hairatan due to losses and poor infrastructure facilities. Since 2018, it has restarted efforts to relaunch this route because of feasibility for China to connect to Tehran and further to Central Asia and Europe. Now, it is trying to build a 657 km stretch of road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, costing US$ 1.8BN with investments from the Asian Infrastrcuture Investment Bank (AIIB)has agreed to invest in the venture. In May 2018, China joined the Transport Internationaux Routiers (TIR) convention while Pakistan, which is a key partner in BRI, ratified the TIR in April 2018. This will help them move goods along the North-South Corridor. Iran has already launched a corridor based on TIR conventions and sent the first cargo using the same to Uzbekistan via Afghanistan on August 11, 2020.

The CPEC and CCWAEC have been advertised as the flagship projects of BRI. The volatility of Afghanistan and the fact that it lies in China’s backyard makes it a strategically important region for China. The country has been perceived as a ‘black hole’, with the potential to adversely impact development in the neighbouring region due to spreading instability and severing existing and emerging trade routes. 

Other than trade routes and security aspects, China is eying Afghanistan for its reserves of strategic minerals. Copper and Lithium are some of the key components for making electric vehicles, batteries and smart home systems; units China’s manufacturing industry invests heavily in. Afghanistan holds an estimated 1.88BN metric tons of iron ore alongside the world’s second largest supply of copper and lithium. Today, China controls most reserves of such strategic minerals in different parts of the world. The unexploited minerals in Afghanistan thus naturally remain a highly coveted resource for China; Beijing has been working on increasing its control over the same for little over a decade now. 

The exploration and development rights of the Aynak Copper Mine, which contains 5.5 million tonnes of high-grade copper ore, were secured by the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jianxi Copper Company Limited (JCCL) in 2007 while the principal mining contract was signed in May 2008. Since then, the project has been stalled due to a variety of reasons including the deteriorating security situation. In April 2019, the Afghan Government announced that it will take a decision on the fate of this project, as it was finalising a new mining law.  On the other hand, MCC, by citing different reasons such as falling copper price, and slowing Chinese economy, wants to renegotiate the deal while dictating new terms and conditions. Now with the Taliban at the helm of affairs, its state-owned companies probability of getting the mining rights of mineral resources in the future cannot be denied.

The road forward for China?

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, the initial discussions between China and the Taliban leadership were cordial.   The political will and mandate of the Taliban is still unclear and the international community is apprehensive about legitimising the insurgent group. China’s own concerns vis-à-vis the Taliban are focused on groups like ETIM which threaten its own sovereignty. Once China’s doubts are assuaged, an official recognition of the Taliban by China could soon take place. The dilemma which existed earlier for Chinese policy makers and the choice they had made by not actively taking part in Afghan stability will not be a limiting factor anymore. 

Talks have already been initiated to connect Afghanistan with the CPEC. China proposed assessments to implement projects such as immigration reception centres, drinking water supply schemes and cold storage at crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan, construction of Quetta-Kandahar railway, Kabul-Peshawar Motorway and railway. Initial Soviet economic success in Afghanistan indicates that Afghans could be open to more economic engagement, if it does not precipitate revolutionary changes in its cultural and social fabric. This leaves a little wiggle room for China to use its economic heft, as it is already exploring the venue diplomatically. 

The ideal scenario China would be looking for is a stable Afghanistan with favourable disposition in power under which it can invest in connectivity and mining projects. It would like to revive mining at Aynak and expand CPEC to Afghanistan soon. Probability of opening of Chinese-Afghanistan border will remain low, as security in Xinxiang always remains a high priority at all costs. China has kept its economic ambitions on the back burner till political stability and security are restored in Afghanistan. Keeping aside China’s direct economic interests in Afghanistan, its global ambitions based on geo-economic strategies could be threatened by the risk emanating from Afghanistan in the Central and South Asian region. China has two options; either eliminate the threat or contain it within Afghan borders.

The increasing attacks on CPEC projects in Pakistan have alerted Chinese leadership which has been worried about such scenarios where rival powers may use instability in Afghanistan to threaten Chinese projects in the region. This will leave China in policy uncertainty on ground intervention into Afghan matters to contain activities of rival power within Afghan borders. It might use its economic leverage on its allies and partners to close borders and implement strict border controls.

Shreyas Deshmukh is a Research Associate with the National Security Program at Delhi Policy Group, a think tank in New Delhi, India. Prior to joining DPG, he worked with MitKat Advisory Services as a geopolitical risk analyst and Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). He holds a master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Pune. He frequently writes on the geopolitical developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His academic focus is socio-political and security issues in South Asia.

Will history repeat itself? How regional dynamics are shaping Russia-China relations

Will history repeat itself? How regional dynamics are shaping Russia-China relations

By – Rushali Saha 

The heavily publicized camaraderie between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—at a time when U.S.-China strategic competition threatens to divide the world into Cold War type ‘spheres of influence’— has captured global imagination. Despite what the warm rhetoric may suggest about the relationship being based on shared values and common world views, ultimately their relationship is governed by a pragmatic assessment of shared interests, evolving largely as a response to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Washington’s latest foreign policy move to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan will inevitably impact China-Russia relations, possibly to their detriment as it holds the potential to exacerbate the existing cracks in their ‘uneasy entente.’

As global powers rush to fill the strategic vacuum that emerged in Afghanistan in the wake of America’s hasty withdrawal, China and Russia have already professed their commitment to work together to “prevent foreign forces from interfering and destroying” Afghanistan. While in the short term this works well for both countries which are looking for avenues to engage with the Taliban, it is hardly sustainable in the long run. Although China and Russia may share the common ambition of pushing Washington out of Asia, when it comes to Central Asia, there is less in common to hold them together. To be sure, both countries have worked out a rather convenient ‘division of labor’ which allows Beijing to focus on broadly economic activities under the rubric of BRI, while securing the political and military influence of Moscow. Yet, in the anarchic world of international relations, such an artificial distinction hardly survives. 

BRI, Central Asia and Afghanistan 

Projected as a “transcontinental long-term policy and investment program”—Central Asia plays a prominent role in Beijing’s geo-economic calculations due to its strategic location as the main land corridor in BRI, abundant natural resources, making it a prominent long-term investment destination. However, the militant activity in Central Asian countries together with the growing Sinophobia, is a major cause of concern for Beijing as it threatens its own economic investments in the region. To address this, China has adopted a two-way approach; increasing arms sale to Central Asian governments— which between 2015-2020 accounted for 18% of the region’s total arms sale— while also increasing security coordination and cooperation with regional government. Taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook—China is now using its own Private Military Companies (PMC’s) to protect and defend Chinese economic investments and infrastructure sites in Central Asia, where the PMC’s have been granted an expanded role in size and importance than in other regions. 

Although Russia has been involved in Chinese-Central Asian military cooperation since the end of Cold War—which they continue through the Shanghai Cooperative Organiation (SCO) —China’s increasing security presence is likely to disturb the uneasy entente characterising Russia-China cooperation in the region. Given Russia’s own economic miseries, military burden sharing with Beijing may seem lucrative, especially if Beijing successfully prevents the infiltration of terrorists and radical groups into Central Asia, but this economic incentive is unlikely to pacify the historically induced chronic insecurity and inferiority complexes that characterize Sino-Russia relations. The increasing fragility of Russia’s economy, and the need to present a united front to challenge Western authority, makes overt expressions of fissures within the Sino-Russian ‘alliance’ unlikely— nevertheless analysts have identified moves such as Kremlin’s invitation to link up with Eurasian Economic Unit as a move to contain Chinese influence in Central Asia.   

Any discussion on Central Asia’s politics is incomplete without factoring in the “Afghanistan factor.” Bordering three Central Asian nations—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan— the internal dynamics in Afghanistan inevitably have a profound effect on regional stability at large, due to the unique geography of the region. Parallel to China extending its influence in Central Asia, Beijing has also emerged as an important actor in Afghanistan in recent years—not only in terms of economic influence, but also political and diplomatic support. This places Beijing in a favorable position to dominate the affairs of what S Friedrick Starr famously described as “Greater Central Asia” back in 2008, which inevitably would diminish Russia’s influence in the region. Arguably it is too soon to predict how Chinese foreign policy will play out in post-American withdrawal Afghanistan, but reports indicate that Beijing is seriously considering BRI extension to Afghanistan. A possible option to integrate Afghanistan to BRI is through railway from Central Asia, but it remains unclear and comes with its own set of challenges

In tune with the larger currents of Sino-Russia relations, at first it may seem that Russia is strong supporter of BRI. Indeed, President Putin once described BRI-EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) and EU coordination as an “integration of integrations”—later dropping EU, and replacing it variously with ASEAN, SCO etc. However, an independent study examining the coverage of BRI in major Russian newspapers between 2013 and 2019 reveal that Russian’s view on BRI is much more polarized, with some voices being especially suspicious about China’s intentions and ambitions. Yet another study which interviewed “Moscow-based political elites” reveals the more “alarmist” reaction among them, rather than one of optimism. Fundamentally, the artificial linking up fails to obscure the fact that EAEU and BRI have fundamental different economic rationales where the former is based on the principle of free movement of goods, services, finances and labour, whereas the latter is a series of infrastructure projects. 

Conclusively, it is evident that Afghanistan plays an important role in China’s own Central Asia calculations and U.S. withdrawal provides an opportune moment for Beijing to consolidate its presence in the larger region, which will not be without consequence for Moscow’s traditional position. At this juncture, it is worth recalling the famous quote often attributed to famous American author, Mark Twain—“history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Until now the “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Russia has survived due to the latter’s tactic acquiescence to China taking the lead in economic affairs of the region, but with the changed regional and international dynamics it remains to be seen if the historically induced mistrust in Sino-Russian relations will resurface or stay at bay. 

Rushali Saha is currently serving as a Research Analyst at the Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Previously she served as a Research Associate at the Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. She holds a masters degree in Politics with International Relations from Jadavpur University. She graduated summa cum laude from the same university with an undergraduate degree in political science. Her research interests include the evolving geopolitics of Indo-Pacific, with a special focus on India’s foreign policies in the region.


South Korean SLBM – between narratives and broader consequences

South Korean SLBM – between narratives and broader consequences

By – Pawel Behrendt

In recent weeks media from South Korea informed about two successful tests of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Without any doubt, it is a huge win; Republic of Korea has joined an exclusive club of states with the “second strike” capability; furthermore, it is the sole non-nuclear state in this group. Nonetheless, the missile success brings forward many questions of strategic and geopolitical consequences.

According to media reports, the SLBM was test-fired from Dosan Ahn Chang-ho conventional submarine, the prototype vessel of the KSS-III class, which was commissioned in August this year. The KSS-III is distinguished from other conventional submarines by six K-VLS vertical launchers for the Hyunmoo-4-4 ballistic missile and Hyunmoo-3C cruise missile with a range of 1,500 kilometres. However, the ROK Navy decided that six launchers were not enough to create a credible deterrent system; hence, the ships of the second tranche are to receive more K-VLS, with the figure of ten most often mentioned in the media.

The ROK Ministry of National Defence has refused to confirm the details for security reasons; however, neither the tests nor the missile capabilities of the submarine were a surprise. Reports emerged in early July that South Korea launched the same type of SLBM from a submerged barge. Back then, the Naver portal had suggested that a test firing of a rocket from Dosan Ahn Chang-ho could take place soon. During the first September test, a missile was just ejected from a submerged vessel; two weeks later, it was launched.

The type of tested missile is not known, but most sources point to a modified version of the Hyunmoo-2B tactical ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometres. The development of an indigenous SLBM was initiated in 2013 after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, and intelligence obtained the first information on an analogous missile north of the 38 parallel. The program was dubbed K-SLBM. Seoul officially revealed work on the missile in July 2017. This came after Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test and successful tests of Pukguksong-1 and -2 SLBMs.

Further information about the K-SLBM emerged this spring. The military research and development agency Daejeon Sejong Research Institute (DSRI)is said to be working on three types of ballistic missiles derived from the Hyunmoo-2B and designated Hyunmoo-4. The Hyunmoo-4-1 is said to be for ground forces and designed to destroy North Korean bunkers and underground command posts; meanwhile, the Hyunmoo-4-2 is a ballistic missile for surface ships while the Hyunmoo-4-4 is the K-SLBM. No information is available on the Hyunmoo-4-3, and there is speculation that it may be a hypersonic missile.

South Korea’s ballistic missile journey

This is not the end of Seoul’s ambitions. The medium-term defence plan for the current decade, announced in August 2020, envisages the development of a new generation of submarines with a displacement of 3600-4000 tonnes carrying ballistic missiles. Both conventional and nuclear propulsion has to be under consideration. South Korea has been considering the construction of nuclear-powered vessels since 2003, but so far, technical and financial problems, as well as pressure from Washington, have stood in the way.

The US for years had curbed South Korea’s ballistic missile ambitions; the 1979 US-ROK military agreement limited the range of missiles to 180 kilometres. At the time, the United States intended to limit South Korea’s ability to attack targets north of Pyongyang and thus to deescalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula. These assumptions ceased to be valid with the development of North Korea’s missile programme. However, the agreement itself was not renegotiated until 2001, when the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles was increased to 300 kilometres, while the maximum weight of a warhead remained at 500 kilograms.

In fact, the main concern of military planners in Seoul was the latter parameter. It was felt that a half-ton warhead would not provide adequate capability against North Korean bunkers and underground installations. Hence, in the next round of negotiations, South Korea demanded to increase the range of missiles to 1,000 kilometres and the weight of warheads to one tonne. However, the administration of President Barack Obama only agreed to increase the range to 800 kilometres. It was only in 2017 that President Donald Trump, ‘in-principle’, agreed to increase the warhead weight to one thousand kilograms.

Nonetheless, throughout such negotiations spanning years, South Korea was not discouraged. The range restriction was circumvented by introducing the Hyunmoo-3 cruise missiles, which are not covered by the treaty. It is also known that the already mentioned Hyunmoo-2 family missiles can carry 1,000-kilogram warheads, but this reduces their range. According to unconfirmed information, the Hyunmoo-4 missile can carry a warhead weighing up to 2 000 kg.

Finally, President Biden’s administration in May 2021 agreed to lift  all restrictions on South Korea’s ballistic missiles. Undoubtedly, Washington’s agreement is a major success for South Korean diplomacy. It is currently difficult to assess to what extent the decision to lift restrictions on South Korea’s ballistic missiles is related to the United States’ 2019 denunciation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). On the other hand, Seoul has announced that it does not intend to develop or deploy ballistic missiles with a range of over 800 kilometres.

Gauging Seoul’s outlook on SLBM’s

The reason for such a restrained approach is simple: Korea wants to avoid a missile arms race in East Asia. With a range of 800 kilometres, Hyunmoo-2C ballistic missiles, which are probably deeply modified Russian Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, can strike any target within North Korea. Such capabilities are a priority for South Korean planners. However, western Japan and parts of China and Russia are also within range of the Hyunmoo-2C. The Hyunmoo-3C cruise missiles have a range of 1,500 kilometres, and for the moment, their deterrence potential is considered sufficient.

The ROK leadership is aware that the development and introduction of medium- and/or intermediate-range ballistic missiles could provoke a response from China and Russia. Therefore, ROK carefully observes Beijing’s and Moscow’s reaction to its ballistic missile programme development. Another restraining factor is Japan. South Korea’s ballistic missiles would definitely deliver arguments to advocates of the idea that the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) should acquire the ability to strike enemy bases that threaten the country’s security. Such a step by Tokyo would definitely tilt the balance of power in North-East Asia and make an even greater contribution to the arms race in the region. As of now, none of the neighbouring powers expressed concern about the K-SLBM program, at least officially.

The lifting of the restrictions has, of course, provoked criticism from Pyongyang. The communist regime may fear a costly arms race that it will not be able to sustain. This fear was reflected when the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) –North Korea’s state media – accused Seoul and Washington of stimulating an arms race on the Korean peninsula and seeking to impede North Korea’s development. 

Despite such directives, K-SLBM program remains somewhat puzzling. The growing range of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as submarines armed with such weapons, speculate about Seoul’s ambitions to build capabilities enabling power projection not only in Northeast Asia but also the Indo-Pacific –even as South Korea remains wary of endorsing the Indo-Pacific concept. Such divagations are fuelled by the decision to build an indigenous light aircraft carrier.

However, South Korean official sources are clear: the range of ballistic missiles will be limited to 800 km. As pointed earlier, the ROK military is mainly interested in larger warheads able to destroy North Korean bunkers and underground command posts. The deterrence is aimed predominantly on the northern neighbour and presumes using ballistic and cruise missiles to eliminate North Korean leadership, command chain and crucial installations. Submarines armed with missiles are another asset strengthening the deterrence and enabling the second strike. Another reason to introduce such complicated systems is the simple fact that North Korea is doing the same. Also, under Moon-Jae In, South Korea has been actively trying to build itself as a strong, if not formidable, middle power; initiatives like the ‘New Southern Policy’ and Korean ‘New Deal’ have shown Seoul’s attempts to engage with neighbours and lead by example.

On the other hand, the South Korean deterrence may be in the longer perspective aimed at China and Japan. Given sour relations with both states and uncertainty about the US commitments, such an option seems valid. It raises, however, the question of the credibility of such a non-nuclear deterrence. Missiles with conventional warheads may not be necessarily effective to deter nuclear powers like China and North Korea.

An uncertain future

Does the ROK aim to go nuclear? Such a discussion has been going on since North Korea’s nuclear programme began. Proponents of this solution stress that the best way to deter a nuclear-armed enemy is to acquire its own nuclear weapons. They warn of the risk of becoming a political hostage to Pyongyang once it has successfully completed its nuclear and missile programmes. Another argument concerns the reliability of the US nuclear umbrella. 

Opponents of acquiring nuclear weapons warn of the risk of a domino effect and the unleashing of a regional nuclear arms race. The biggest concerns here are the reaction of China and the fear of Japan deciding to develop its own nuclear weapons. In such a situation, Pyongyang would also gain justification for its actions. In addition, ROK would have to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which could undermine its position in the international arena and, in extreme cases, expose it to sanctions.

The decision to respond to North Korea’s SLBM programme has given the ROK new capabilities and options. As of now, Seoul remains concentrated on Pyongyang and does not declare broader ambitions. However, this posture may change with the evolution of the geopolitical situation. Actions taken by Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, as well as ambitions of Korean leadership, are poised to shape the security arc of the region.

Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science PhD candidate at the University of Vienna. He is a Member of the Board at the Boym Institute in Warsaw and is a regular contributor to

EU’s Kabul Outlook Under the Taliban 2.0: Five Challenges for Europe

EU’s Kabul Outlook Under the Taliban 2.0: Five Challenges for Europe

By- Dr. Krzysztof M. Zalewski

There is no doubt that the US military and other parts of the American government played a major role in Afghanistan over the last two decades. But missions in Afghanistan were probably also the most substantial European external engagement in the recent history. Europeans were present in this country as part of the US-led NATO forces or representing the European Union and its individual member states. 

This was a considerable endeavor. Tens of thousands NATO security personnel from Europe served in Afghanistan for nearly two decades since 2002. Thousands of them were wounded and hundreds died under Hindu Kush. Operations in Afghanistan consumed a substantial part of EU member states’ military budgets. Since 2002, the EU has provided more than €4 billion ($4.7billion) in development aid to Afghanistan in order – as it was put in the EU documents – to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the country, provide sustainable growth and jobs as well as basic social services. Individual member states’ commitment – e.g. Germany, France or Sweden – was even bigger. 

Thanks to international assistance from the US, EU and India among others, substantial social progress was achieved in the country over the last two decades. According to German data, school enrolment of boys and girls rose 12-fold, millions of people were supplied with energy and per capita income increased four-fold. Almost nine in ten Afghans acquired access to the basic health services which resulted in longer life expectancy (by nine years since 2002).

With the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan on August 16th this substantial European investment of political, economic and military resources in Afghan nation-building was put into question. What Western dominated Afghanistan failed in was the creation of a responsive government which could counter both internal and external threats, enjoying the trust of the Afghan people at the same time. Although the EU keeps unofficial contact with the Taliban government, it has very little influence on the situation in the country. Europeans have very limited capacities to protect infrastructural and social investments of the past two decades. The five benchmark approach approved in September by the EU foreign ministers is an important political signal for the Taliban, but it is not likely to change the course of their political actions substantially.

Moreover, the new political setting in Afghanistan creates dire challenges for the Europeans. First, migratory pressure is likely to grow. According to EU estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015, compared to 2.2 million Afghans registered in Iran and Pakistan alone (UNHCR data). Another 3.5 million people are internally displaced and may be forced to leave the country. Many others would not see their future in the country governed by radical fundamentalists.

The mass movement of people, if it starts, is not likely to be limited to Afghans themselves. The European public opinion – in this case quite uniquely likeminded – fears the uncontrolled wave of migration which they witnessed in 2014/2015. This migratory wave was triggered by Syrians escaping the war-torn country, but conflict refugees were joined on the way by many other people who wanted to reach the EU borders. Although the numbers may seem not substantial compared to more than 400 million of the combined EU population, many Europeans fear the consequences of uncontrolled and irregular migration which Afghan refugees can trigger. After 2015, the European leaders are also conscious of the political backlash on the continent. The recent migration policy crises deepened intra-European divisions on how to manage migratory flows and gave an opportunity for far-right parties to rise. The new crisis at the European borders is likely to put extra pressure on the EU and their political systems as well.

The authoritarian states bordering the old continent are aware of the European fragility. Many seem to excel in the politics of migratory pressure, once applied by Muamar Kaddafi, the Libyan leader, in 1990s and early 2000s. Today the regime in Minsk not only lets the people on the move to pass through Belarus, but they deliver people on purpose from the Middle East to the EU borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It is also possible that new leaders in Kabul understand and take advantage of this European fragility. They may play the refugee card themselves and let people leave the country. 

The second challenge for the EU is of security. Taliban-governed Afghanistan was once a safe haven for terrorist groups. Observing the evolution of the movement, many hoped it will not promote religious extremism outside the country any more. But this optimism may be misplaced, as some prominent figures in the Taliban government, like Sirajuddin and Anas Haqqanis or Kais Wasiq, cooperated with the Al-Qaida network and organized terrorist attacks themselves. The more moderate fringe, who are focused primarily on the conservative revolution in Afghanistan, seems to be losing ground. Furthermore, the Taliban still seem to be diverse and the opportunities given to the international revolutionary jihadists may vary from province to province, without real control from Kabul. Even if Europeans would like to mitigate security risks by means of diplomacy and economic pressure, it is unclear whether they will find a reliable partner among the new rulers in the Afghan capital. 

Moreover, the Taliban movement relied heavily on income from the production of drugs and their trafficking in the last two decades. A major destination for their trade was Europe. As Josep Borell, the coordinator of the EU external policies recently recognized, the political handover in Afghanistan may result in the spike of criminal activities related to drugs. 

Migration, jihadist revolutionary zeal, terrorist networks and the drug industry – they all create the third key challenge for Europe: instability in broader Central Asia, which is Europe’s strategic backyard. Political systems in these autocratic republics are challenged more by religious extremist groups than by democratic opposition. Migration from Afghanistan and the export of jihadist ideology may destabilize the entire region in which political systems fail to satisfy the ambitions of young nations, especially as the number of people in the five post-Soviet republics is growing steadily. With the exception of Kazakhstan, the regional leader, other countries seem to be in a rather dire economic situation. Weakened by the combined of pandemics and droughts, they are currently especially vulnerable.

The fourth European challenge in Afghanistan is value-based. Ursula von der Leyen, EU’s Commission President, made bold promises for the Afghans in the spirit of European values in her recent state of the union address: “We stand by the Afghan people. The women and children, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders (…) We must support them and we will coordinate all efforts with Member States to bring them to safety”. She also declared an increase in humanitarian assistance for Afghans in the country. These heartening promises bare the risk of not delivering at par with overly high expectations. If they are not fulfilled, it would further undermine European credibility, both in the region and globally. In the current political setting in the country, the EU relies on the goodwill of the Taliban leadership, as well as cooperation with Pakistan, Russia and China. 

Here we come to the fifth European challenge made visible by the Taliban takeover. It is connected to the transatlantic relationship with the US, still central for European security. In the European perception, NATO followed its biggest member in order to fight a common security threat. Europeans invested in all possible terms in this mission triggered by the American call on Art. 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states an obligation to collective defense.  The recent American decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was not a surprise for the European NATO allies and other US partners in the EU (only 21 out of 27 EU member states belong to NATO as well). But the precise timing of this operation, the style in which the decision was communicated and its chaotic execution deepened divisions between the Europeans and the American administration. 

The Afghan mission was a collective endeavor. Yet the American departure was unilateral. The US decided to leave Afghanistan without taking the interests of their European allies into consideration. It became once more apparent for the Europeans that they rely on American power extensively in global affairs, and that the US will not support European external investment or common ambitions, especially when it clashes with its own national interests of the moment.

For instance, the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) pact has been finalized by the three powers where none of the American EU allies was even invited. At the same time, the French submarine deal for Australia was cancelled and replaced by an agreement between Canberra and Washington. Central European NATO and EU members were surprised this summer by lifting of US sanctions on North Stream II, a gas pipeline clearly endangering their energy security. The conclusion in surprisingly many EU capitals is clear: even a Democratic US administration does not take European interest into account, and can occasionally play against European allies.

This perception is likely to have a profound impact on European security policy. Voices demanding the creation of strategic autonomy for the EU are becoming louder. In the best-case scenario European strategic autonomy does not necessarily mean an anti-American pivot; it should rather aim at building abilities to act in matters of security independently from its major NATO ally. Even the biggest investment on the international stage has little impact if one cannot defend them. In a more realistic prospect, Brussels and Washington will be drifting apart. The Afghan lesson will be carefully studied on the Old Continent. One should hope it may also lead to forging new enhanced partnerships by Europe on the global stage. It would involve careful diplomacy in Islamabad and Central Asian capitals. Hopefully, the Kabul collapse may bring New Delhi and European capitals – not only Brussels, Berlin and Paris – closer together. As a recent piece by Manoj Joshi demonstrated, New Delhi has considerations about the limits of partnership with the United States similar to those analyzed in the EU. Substantial Indian development cooperation projects in Afghanistan are at stake, sharing probably the fate of European investments. Indians and Europeans will face security threats arising from Afghanistan, in the form of violent religious fundamentalism, terrorism and criminal activities related to drugs. Our partners in Central Asia may need concerted assistance; cooperation in these areas is possible under frameworks created by recent India-EU summits. All partners will do wisely if they try to address multiple challenges arising from the Taliban takeover in a coordinated manner. 

Dr. Krzysztof M. Zalewski serves as the President of the Board of the Boym Institute (Warsaw, Poland). He writes about European foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific as well as digital and energy transformations in the region. Krzysztof previously worked at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna (2014-2016), at the Foreign Relations Office of the Chancellery of the President of Poland (2010-2014), at the Polish Parliament (2009-2010) and at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw (2009).