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Here We Go Again: Syrian Deja Vu

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The recent escalation in Syria, with the US attacking for the first time directly the Syrian territory, has taken many by surprise and confusion. To some commentators, is the sign of the unpredictability of Donald Trump, for others the continuous with a policy always directed to the change of regimes, for others more is the sign of end of Assad regime.

What is more striking, however, is the parallelism with the Iraqi War and its build up, as well as the confirmation of the “emotional diplomacy”, which affects mainly the West and its allies. There are no easy responses, or solutions, although an objective analysis requires to try to see the events with all eyes and minds in Washington, Moscow, Damascus, London, Bruxelles, Tehran, Beijing and Pyongyang.

All started with an attack, still not proven or completely investigated, on which a likely chemical substance (or more than one) has been used against the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria. On one side, the US and its allies accused the Damascus regime, on the other, Moscow and its allies talked about “involuntary chemical use” or accuses rebel fighting groups.

The bottom line in this terrible story, where more than 80 people have been killed, is that no one has a shred of proof or started a formal investigation to establish the exact causes. On this it is like  going back to the initial stages on the Syrian war, when the western countries were taking every single excuse to put  foot on Syrian ground. At the same time it is a deja vu of the Iraqi WMD fiasco, when not only proof was nonexistent but even fabricated.

Nevertheless, we cannot deny that Syria is home to a huge chemical arsenal, that under the US-Russia agreement should have been secured and stocked for dismantling. This amount, not known, added to the security on the ground difficult to establish, surely jeopardized any attempt to clear the area: Damascus has still chemical weapons? Yes. Have the rebels access to weapons following occupation of some areas? Yes. Has ISIL access to chemical weapons? Yes.

Under these conditions, it could be true that Damascus used prohibited substances, as well as it is likely that rebels bombarded the wrong area or ISIL used them against civilians. International Law and diplomacy have for decades worked on the same assumption of civil and penal justice: innocence until proven in court. A golden rule, followed most of the time, to avoid bloodshed and major conflicts, a necessity to give peace and mediation a chance. However, history teaches us that “incidents” have been used to justify military actions, incidents that could be see and proven: Tonkin incident, the Afghan “communist” conversion to open soviet invasion, etc.

The problem is that in recent years too many “incidents” have been unproven action by belligerents, and used to justify quick military solutions that proved disastrous in their consequences. One of the main pillars has been the “emotional diplomacy”, where after a deplorable action by warring parts, another country acts moved by sentiments, by “humanitarian” scopes. Like a child with a tantrum, bombs dropped as apples from a tree shaken by a storm, causing more death, destruction, and especially no solution. Or at least not a lasting solution, but a piloted result to benefit the Samaritan intervening.

This is the calculation made in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, Ankara when they continuously switch their policies and alliances, not in the interest of Syrian people, nor for global peace, but for geopolitical equilibrium (Moscow) and change of regime policy (US) to destabilize Russia, China, Iran.

Therefore, can we even try to make some sense in all this? The US accuses Assad of war crimes, probably true but still unproven, for a simple reason: change the regime. This was the pillar of American policy with Bush and with Obama found in the so-called Arab Spring the lever to tilt regimes in Middle East that were unfriendly, historically. They instigated revolution in Egypt for then backtracking and supporting General Al Sisi in the repressions and coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Democracy has its strange ways of work. In Libya they accomplished the ousting of Gaddafi (thanks to a Russian/Chinese diplomatic suicide at the UN), while in Iran failed from the start. Syria was to be their final step, but the Russian strong opposition and support denied the change. It is not surprising that any attack made by Syrian forces receives wider coverage on Western medias than the thousands of people killed by terrorist groups and rebels armed with American weapons in Syria and Iraq. Nor is news the silent and censored war in Yemen, where not only chemical weapons have been used and thousands have been killed by Saudi’s aerial bombardment on civilians. Skepticism is the least, then grows when you read that 59 tomahawk missiles have been fired against a military base and that just 2 days later was again ready to use! Either all those missile failed the objectives or they bomb the wrong place.

Russia is defending Assad and his regime, under a status quo paradigm: losing Syria, will wipe out Russian presence from eastern Mediterranean, closing the Black Sea Fleet in a prison with the key held by the erratic Turkish President Erdogan. Russia support Syria to strengthen border control against terrorism, as many foreign fighters are from the Caucasus, and Russia already experienced first hand the change of regime policy with the “coloured revolutions” that engulfed Eastern Europe. However, Russia is not the sparring partner anymore, Yeltsin’s years have been forgotten like a day after being drunk. Russia, regretted the Libyan error, and since then responded tit for tat: Ukraine and Crimea are just a warning. Russia accuses the US of fabricating news and arming rebel and terrorist groups (whether directly or not, it is still not proven), and closing an eye or two when they make their massacres. Russia accused the US of interfering in the peace process that Moscow was silently building with Turkey and Iran.

A key to understand the Syrian puzzle is Turkey, and the actions of the two powers is a reflection of Ankara unpredictable policies. Erdogan at first was a fierce critic of Assad, threatening invasion to support Turkmen (covertly to wipe out Kurds and PKK), and conducting a strong anti-Russian campaign. Unfortunately for the US, Turkey made a big mistake by shooting down a Russian fighter jet, plunging its economy into disaster and becoming soon a central stage for terror attacks: ISIS ones following the western sponsored policy of open frontiers, and PKK ones taking advantage of Turkish foolishness in lowering their security. Timely and precise came the attempted coup against Erdogan, again with multifaceted interpretations: a US sponsored coup (Gulen supporters) to block a Russian rapprochement or a backfired coup that was used by Erdogan to increase his control, cut the ties with the US and change the foreign policy into a Russian backed solution of the Syrian crisis? Now this chemical incident once again saw Turkey siding with the US, but on the other they still seat at the table with Russian and Iranians to try in solving the conflict.

Many say Trump could be too impetuous on decisions, or even dangerous for world peace, but looking closely he has just reconditioned a well used machine that in the last two decades has made of the Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matteo Figus

10/04/2017 at 20:49

India-US Relations: A common goal may not be enough

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The relations between US and India have not always been easy but without doubt the two countries are increasingly looking at strengthening their partnership. Although they still maintain some differences, it is a common strategic interest that is bringing them together.PM Modi and President Obama

Key recent developments include the rapid growth of India’s economy and bilateral trade, the close links between the Indian and American technology industries, a geopolitical coalition to balance the rise of an increasingly aggressive China, the weakening of U.S.-Pakistan relations over various ongoing disputes. Today, India and the US share an extensive cultural, strategic, military, and economic relationship culminated with President Barack Obama being the first US president to be chief guest of the 66th Republic Day celebrations of India held on 26th January 2015.

Nevertheless, for many years the two countries were at the opposite of the geopolitical spectrum. US support of Pakistan and China reflected the necessity to counterbalance the Soviets and their relationship with India, with the latter looking at Moscow for support although its non-aligned status. Reason why Barak Obama while on one side hailed the India military partnership on the other he could not for a moment not feeling uneasy seeing Russian military hardware parading under his eyes.

The US never abandoned India as an option or stop to consider its importance. Since the end of WWII US promoted India’s independence as a tool to improve conditions in colonial countries and avoid creating a fertile terrain for Soviet influence and, until Kennedy presidency, the US tried to cultivate a relation especially to avoid communism spreading in Asia after China’s revolution. But this system collapsed due to the tensions between USSR and China and following the assassination of Kennedy that opened a new era in American policy. Nixon presidency changed US perception of India, and they started to consider China as the best option to counter the Soviets and Pakistan to tap India’s wings as a response for their relationship with Moscow.

This situation, with high and lows, changed at the end of the Cold War when, having the Soviet threat disappeared, US and India found themselves in a new geopolitical scenario.


India position: Pragmatism rather than hypothesis

India reasons for rapprochement with US are based on countering the two traditional threats: Pakistan and China. The first perceived as regional and the other global, with the second far more dangerous for India’s stability and independence.

Countering Pakistan is something that India considers, under a basic strategic direct goal, a necessity having the unresolved dispute in Kashmir. US, in the past a strong Islamabad ally, has recently moved away from Pakistan due to security concerns, Taliban’s role and increase of Islamist insurgence, distrust in the security forces especially following the Osama bin Laden legacy. India saw in this cold relation the opportunity to deprive Pakistan of the most powerful ally, the only one basically to counter effectively India on a diplomatic role. Pakistan, by losing the US support, left to India a strong advantage both under a strategic and diplomatic sphere, allowing New Delhi to have two members of the UN Security Council on its side against China.

Nevertheless, India convergence is also a pragmatic choice and designed to clearly mark a line on where the US should stand as they face a common and most powerful threat: China.

China has always been the greatest danger for India’s security, its borders and, due to Beijing military superiority, a real danger for its integrity. Whilst keeping the Soviet Union-Russia relations on the table India has always considered the necessity to counterbalance its diplomatic gap against Pakistan and China. Now this has changed for two fundamental reasons: the first is that the US share a common ground of strategic necessity in Asia and the other is that Russia, although still seen as strategically important, has also developed stronger Chinese ties on the international scenario and this open questions on whether India could still count on them in case of a new tension between New Delhi and Beijing.

The new US policy in the Pacific has therefore opened a new opportunity for New Delhi by still fostering ties with Russia but on the immediate they see in US actions a real strategy to keep China under control.

US: India not only for China containment

US diplomatic and strategic plan for Asia is shaping: abandoned Pakistan for concerns over reliance, trust and security, and facing the prospect of a powerful rise of China in the Pacific created the perfect conditions to open a direct dialogue with India. A strong relation with India respond to many US questions: how to counter Islamic insurgency in the area, how to avoid Kashmir being hijacked by Islamist, how to counter Pakistan deteriorating security, how to counter China with a powerful regional country and lastly how to isolate further Russia.

The US primarily abandoned Pakistan after debacles in security and India is seen as a better option to keep under control the neighbour and at the same time have a valuable support in the area as west of Pakistan is basically a no-go area for Washington. Pakistan does not offer anymore security in counter terrorism whilst India proved better in supporting the US since 2001. But the main reason, as for India, is the perception of China. The shifting of policy towards the Pacific to contain China has seen the US engaging in a difficult but important diplomatic offensive. Washington strengthened the ties with its traditional allies Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan, but also they understood the need to find new strong players also on diplomatic and military level. Under this view the US abandoned their remnants of Cold War ostracism and understood that traditional enemies could now be the aces they were looking for: Vietnam and India relations can become that sort of radical, resolute and incorruptible block to counterbalance Chinese rising in the Pacific. India under this paradigm opens for the US even a broader assumption: India although strategically and geographically not Pacific-centric represents nonetheless a valid card in the view of China stepping into the world scenario as a superpower. India is seen by Washington as an important piece in the plan to isolate China and create a sort of “cordon sanitaire”, more military rather than economic, as it happened to Bolshevik Russia. The problem for the US is that their approach to international relations is always subordinated to other aspects that may be of primary importance for Washington but secondary for their partners, and most of the times they foster unbalanced relationships, thus paving the way for divergences.

The US necessity to counter China by increasing India’s support has also opened a new scenario: break India’s diplomatic and military relations with Russia. When US-Russia relations are at the lowest levels since the end of the Cold War, Washington consider the Indian reproach an opportunity to further weaken Russia on a global scale both economically and militarily. The US, as India, are looking at the growing relations between Russia and China as a real danger for geopolitical equilibrium in Asia, and are therefore considering ways to contain the repercussions. However, is on this point that the US and India may found themselves again apart.

India has always been proud of its independent military policy and strategic role and, although fostered relation with the Soviets in the past, never abandoned its neutralist policy. As France within the US allies, India does not want to be in a subordinate position, consider the rapprochement a necessary cooperation for a common goal but not as an umbrella to shade under and accept military diktats. This explain why India although seek US diplomatic and military support against China and Pakistan, on the other still value Moscow friendship. India’s pragmatic policy is to counter immediate and direct threats and avoid being pushed into the new worldwide tension between Russian and US which resembles of the Cold War times. In a word India still considers itself non-aligned.


India and US are part of a new diplomatic and geopolitical strategy under way in the 21st century. India is a rising regional power and likely to be a serious candidate for superpower, exactly like China. But whilst India design is based on traditional security concerns over Kashmir-Pakistan-islamist insurgency and the Chinese stability threat, the US have a broader strategic plan involving China on a global scale as well as Russia. India has also not changed the policy of non-alignment, seen as a proud independent way forward for an Indian role, while the US although looking for new partnership are generally cold regarding military cooperation on same level. The new partnership is therefore strong on convergent auspices and prospects, but may end breaking up if especially the US do not take into full account India’s immediate necessities and understanding their international strategy.

Written by Matteo Figus

22/03/2015 at 18:01

South Korea’s Hyunmoo: A Guardian of the Northern Sky or its Destroyer?

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On 1 October 2013, South Korea held an impressive military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the founding of its armed forces, seen by many as a visible warning to deter provocations from North Korea. During the parade, South Korea publicly displayed for the first time newly locally-developed cruise missiles: the Hyunmoo-2, with a range of 500 kilometres, and the Hyunmoo-3, with a range of 1,000 kilometres.

Hyunmoo: Building South Korea Response to the North

Hyunmoo (Hangul: 현무, literally means “Guardian of the Northern Sky“) refers to a series of missiles developed and deployed by South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development. The origin of the ballistic programme for these series can be traced to 1982, when it was first successfully tested.Hyunmoo 1

The programme however did not developed swiftly due to internal political issues and US interference in keeping under control the process, and during the 90’s was almost abandoned. However, a new era started in 2000 and the programme resumed mainly due to the North Korean increased hostility.

The new Hyunmoo missiles were slightly different from the original project, although developed from them, and classed as improved versions of  Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles in response to North Korea’s Scud-B and Nodong-1 missiles. The Nike Hercules-based missiles had a range of only 180-300 kilometres, but with increased speed for a fast response.

The programme, along with the tests, accelerated from 2003 when South Korea reported to the US the wish to proceed with the development of a cruise missile programme. The new programme developed a land-attack missile codenamed Cheon Ryong (Sky Dragon) or Hyunmoo, with the first test on 25 October 2006. The new test series included a missile called “Eagle-1” or Hyunmoo 3A, with a range of 500 kilometres, and an “Eagle-2” or Hyunmoo 3B, with a range of 1,000 kilometres. A third model, called Hyunmoo 3C or “Eagle-3“, would be capable of striking its target up to 1,500 kilometres away. In 2009, the Hyunmoo series was upgraded with the versions 2A and 2B capable of a range of 300 and 500 Km, and the series 3A and 3B with a range of 500 and 1000 km.

The last stage of development came in April 2012 when South Korean army Major General Shin Won-sik, announced that South Korea was deploying a new cruise missile capable of hitting targets anywhere in North Korea. It is widely considered that General Shin was referring to the Hyunmoo 3C with a range estimated in 1,000-1500 km. This new cruise missile was recently unveiled, named Hyunmoo-3, it is very similar to the American Tomahawk and has an increased range of 1,500 km.South Korea's new cruise missiles Hyunmoo-3 and Hyunmoo-2 are displayed during events to mark the 65th anniversary of Armed Forces Day, in Seongnam


Hyunmoo Missiles (Model, Range and Derivation)

Hyunmoo-1, 180 km, modified Baekgom

Hyunmoo-2A, 300 km, modified Hyunmoo-1 and SS-21

Hyunmoo-2B, 500 km, modified Hyunmoo-2A

Hyunmoo-3A, 500 km

Hyunmoo-3B, 1,000 km, modified Hyunmoo-3A

Hyunmoo-3C, 1,500 km, modified Hyunmoo-3B


Analysis: A Message Beyond Pyongyang

South Korea had joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2001, but this did not prohibit members from producing such missiles. The agreement with the US prior to 2001 prevented South Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction, and they never agreed to the development of long-range missiles. The US policy had generally been cautious in avoiding an escalation in the peninsula and tried to keep South Korean defences as strong as a possible instead. However, it is now clear that not only the South Koreans developed these missiles in contrast with the US, but also that these are not a defensive measure. The new missile is able to reach not only North Korea but also Japan, China and Russia. Therefore a question arises, what is the real message and significance of the South Korean move?Hyunmoo Range

South Korea’s display of power represents a clear signal that tensions in the Korean peninsula are only dormant and in first instance it is clear the message sent to Pyongyang: South Korea has the capability to develop an indigenous ballistic technology, and it is also capable to defend itself. Often North Korea claimed its advantage on the basis of the superior ballistic armament and a nationalist pride in producing these weapons with local engineering. One of main accusations from the Stalinist regime is to depict South Korea and Japan as “stooges of the American imperialism”, two puppets unable to defend themselves without Washington support. This parade was therefore a signal to Pyongyang that a power display is not an exclusive Kim’s dynasty mark, and that Seoul will respond accordingly to any threat from the North.

Nevertheless, there is more than a North Korean counter-propaganda display, as it also signals a change in US policy towards South Korea. It represents an  “all clear” from Washington to the development of new armaments and it is a message that South Korea can also strike the North without US intervention. It seems that this “koreanisation” of the issue, by shifting towards an intra-Korean armament race, will also highlight the dangers that will inevitably arise at next tension between the two Korea. An armament  race will endanger, instead of stabilise, the peninsula and whilst North Korea will not renounce in building its nuclear deterrent, the risk is that South Korean steps toward a ballistic counterbalance will increase the risk of confrontation, therefore making nearly impossible the task of demilitarisation. If we add that skirmishes and military incident are not uncommon, mostly due to Pyongyang’s recklessness, the South renewed power could back fire by escalating a conflict of disastrous consequences.

Nonetheless, the new display inevitably has also a third dimension: anger indirectly the other main power in the dispute, China.  Although China is the main ally of North Korea, and it is clear that it will not certainly risk a war for the “tantrums” of this unhappy child, it is also true that Beijing sees the Asian-Pacific area as its sphere of influence. An increasing American interest and military building has been noted in recent years. This has been done in two ways: direct shifting of military resources and strengthening traditional allies. The US have clearly appeased all countries involved in the South China Sea, by strengthening their military forces:  Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Philippines. This latest move by Seoul it is also a message to China that Washington is acting behind the scene by building a powerful containment that from Japan links to South East Asia, where recent changes in US policy lead to renewed talks with Vietnam and further than this area, with Chinese arch-enemy India.

The Hyunmoo, by including Pyongyang within range, it has also the effect to attract a wider area that inevitably demonstrate that the Korean peninsula is a stage of a much larger battlefield involving several powers that could erupt in the near future.

Written by Matteo Figus

07/10/2013 at 22:12

North Korea’s Nuclear Test: A Blast Into Reality

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North Korea confirmed that has successfully carried out a nuclear test, sparking as usual wider condemnation around the world.

The test was conducted underground and confirmed after seismic activity was detected at North Korea’s nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, with a magnitude of 4.9 the US Geological Survey said. It is still unclear the exact data on the test, but the South Korean military estimate that the yield of the nuclear explosion was between six and seven kilotons. Russia’s defense ministry says the size of the blast was over seven kilotons.NKOREA-MILITARY-NUCLEAR-TEST-FILES

Whatever will be final data, one fact is clear: North Korea is making swift progresses in building its nuclear deterrent. The above sentence could find confirmations in the fact that Pyongyang’s nuclear scientists apparently managed to create a small device capable of generating a powerful explosion.

As the statement from state-run KCNA news agency read:

“It was confirmed that the nuclear test that was carried out at a high level in a safe and perfect manner using a miniaturised and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously did not pose any negative impact on the surrounding ecological environment,” KCNA said.

The claim to have tested a “miniaturised” device is an alarming signal; North Korea is believed to be  trying for several years building a nuclear device capable to fit in a long range missile whose range are the US. The recent ballistic test in December 2012, although officially to put a satellite into orbit, shocked for the rapidity on which North Korea recovered by previous setback. In addition have been noted technological progresses which raises question on how an impoverished and isolated country is able to develop a structured missile programme.

The nuclear test, the third in North Korean history, comes as a tacit confirmation of the desire to build a deterrent to block US activities and get advantage against arch enemies South Korea and Japan. North Korea statement said the test was “to protect our national security and sovereignty against the reckless hostility of the United States“.

This test, the first under Kim Jong-un, is also shaping the course of the leadership with a clear aim: North Korea is taking seriously its missile and nuclear programme.

The message is getting its way across the world, and while international powers waste time thinking of Teheran’s possible nuclear bombs, they do not realise that a real and more tangible threat is already in front of their eyes for at least a decade.

Reactions: Divisions Among Powers Fuel Pyongyang’s Programme

US President Barack Obama called for “swift” and “credible” international action in response. President Obama said the test was a “highly provocative act” and added: “The danger posed by North Korea’s threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community. The United States will also continue to take steps necessary to defend ourselves and our allies.”

China expressed “firm opposition” to its ally’s test. However, ambiguous and unclear as usual, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has urged all parties involved to reduce tensions and solve the issue through dialogue in the framework of six-party talks. It also expressed “firm opposition” to the test, called on North Korea not to take any actions that would aggravate the situation, and to “honour its commitment to denuclearization”.

South Korea’s presidential national security adviser Chun Young-woo said: “This is an unacceptable threat to the security of the Korean peninsula and north-east Asia, and a challenge to the whole international community.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said: “It is a grave threat to our nation’s safety and cannot be tolerated as it will significantly damage international society’s peace and safety.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the test as a “clear and grave violation” of UN resolutions and a “deeply destabilising” provocation.

Britain and Russia called for a “robust response” from the UN Security Council.

As usual North Korea actions spark a strong condemnation, at least in vocal terms, but it can be argued how they can achieve something more tangible. The US and its allies count on China to get incisive sanctions, but as seen in the past Beijing role is, to say the least, ambiguous and not reliable. The new leadership of Xi Jinping still has to show a real face in foreign policy, and this test could help in understanding the new course. Recent tensions with Japan concerning the Senkaku/Diaoyu  Islands do not preannounce “candid relations” but the test could put Beijing in a very difficult position. Its balancing between being a market partner for the west and being at the same time a staunch “wannabe superpower” dressed by anticapitalist rhetoric could be at end.

North Korea seems to get the most of this situation, now protracted for over a decade, since the nuclear programme was resumed after the Bush Administration did not hide its desire to destroy one of the “outposts of tyranny”. The line between the nuclear blackmailing and a real deterrent being built is getting thin, and whilst at the UNSC they discuss about actions, Pyongyang may already have enough material to get its job done.

Economic sanctions may impact an already fragile economy and isolated country, but the ones already in place seem to have no effects if North Korea has been able to conduct two missile tests in 2012 and a nuclear test with clear signs of improved technology. On the other hand, this programme, which is clearly “financed” by the starvation of North Korea’s economy and its people, could dangerously lead to the collapse of the regime that is a nightmare for South Korea and China. Engaging Pyongyang in military action could be a disastrous move, rejected by neighbours because as if in the long term the regime could lose the war, in the short the damage could be of unimaginable consequences.

So what next? Clearly the diplomatic way remains the best available, but instead of pressuring North Korea the US should press on China and getting along a key player such Russia. The above task won’t be easy as the US are clearly depicting the Pacific as an area of primary interest, their position on the South China Sea issues are anti-Chinese. The relations with Russia are most of the time based on suspicions, hostility and divergent position on international issues.

Written by Matteo Figus

12/02/2013 at 11:04

North Korea’s Unha-3 Test: Scientific Achievement or Building a Deterrent?

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After four attempts, North Korea successfully test fired a space booster and put into orbit its first satellite. The move, which sparked wide condemnation as a masked long range ballistic missile test, also shocked for the rapidity with which the poor country recovered from the failure in April 2012.

On 12 December 2012, North Korea launched successfully the Unha-3 rocket, a Taepo-dong-2B (mod-4) space booster launch vehicle. The rocket was launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground at 00:49:46 UTC (09:49 KST) and put into orbit a space satellite, Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3.Unha-3 Launch, Reuters

The three stages rocket separated successfully with the first stage impacted the ocean 200 kilometres  off the South Korean west coast at 00:58; at 01:01, the rocket flew over Okinawa (Japan), with the second stage impacting 300 kilometres east of the Philippines four minutes later. The spacecraft separated from the rocket’s third stage at 00:59:13 or nine minutes and 27 seconds after lift-off.

The U.S. Space Command tracked the rocket and its separations from the launch, giving Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 the Satellite Catalog Number 39026 and the international designator 2012-072A.

The test was hailed as a success from North Korean scientists and authorities, and for the first time their claims were backed by US and NORAD with the following note:

‘PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – North American Aerospace Defense Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean missile at 7:49 p.m. EST. The missile was tracked on a southerly azimuth. Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit. At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America’.

KCNA, North Korean News Agency,  previously gave the following statement:

‘Scientists and technicians of the DPRK successfully launched the second version of satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 into its orbit by carrier rocket Unha-3, true to the last instructions of leader Kim Jong Il. Carrier rocket Unha-3 with the second version of satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 atop blasted off from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province at 09:49:46 on December 12, Juche 101(2012). The satellite entered its preset orbit at 09:59:13, 9 minutes and 27 seconds after the lift-off. The satellite is going round the polar orbit at 499.7 km perigee altitude and 584.18 km apogee altitude at the angle of inclination of 97.4 degrees. Its cycle is 95 minutes and 29 seconds. The scientific and technological satellite is fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth. The successful launch of the satellite is a proud fruition of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s policy of attaching importance to the science and technology. It is also an event of great turn in developing the country’s science, technology and economy by fully exercising the independent right to use space for peaceful purposes. At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il Sung’.Celebrations in Pyongyang

The DPRK, that hailed the test as “their sovereign legitimate right to have an indigenous satellite launching as a part of their peaceful space program to demonstrate its economic, & technological power”, is contrasted by the usual accusation that this masks a test for a long range missile capable to carry nuclear war heads and put into range US west coast and Asia.

The UNSC condemned the launch in violations of the resolutions numbers 1718 & 1874 against such activities, although once again the reaction from the main powers has not been homogeneous, highlighting issues to come.


The last chapter in the Taep’o-dong saga? 

The Unha-3 rocket tested in April 2012 was believed to be a new version of precedent Taep’o-dongs, with a first stage using a liquid propeller (Tm-185 and oxidizer Ak-271) rocket known as Musudan-1 ( MRBM derived from Soviet R-27 Zyb). The second stage was thought to be an evolution of the soviet scud based on SS-N-6 technology, like a Rodong-1, a Hwasong-6 or a Nodong. The third stage was new and is believed to be a highly refined design of a liquid storable propellant based on a second stage, and separate engine pump system, utilized in a similar design that Iran has tested successfully on its Safir-II space boosters.

The rocket launched in December is believed to be a further evolution of the Unha-3/Taep’o-dong tested in April 2012, although, as usual, technical specification will be hard to be assessed due to the secrecy of the North Korean authorities.

The satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 (Chosŏn’gŭl: 《광명성―3》호 2호기; Bright Star-3 Unit 2 or Lode Star-3 Unit 2), is an Earth observation spacecraft that replaced the original Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, destroyed in the failed test on 13 April 2012. The launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 was the fourth North Korean attempt to put into orbit a satellite; in the first failed two attempts, 1998 and 2009, North Korea still claimed success  (Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2), whilst in the third in April 2012 admitted the failure after an unprecedented exposure and overture to foreign journalists.

North Korea said the satellite would estimate crop yields and collect weather data as well as assess the country’s forest coverage and natural resources. It also said the satellite weighed about 100 kilograms (200 lb) and that its planned lifetime will be about two years. However, there are reports that the satellite is tumbling and could be dead, while North Korea claims is still functioning.


In the latest test, there are some elements of continuity as well as new trends if compared to North Korean previous patterns. The discontinuity is marked by the rapidity with which North Korea not only conducted the test but also made it successful. In the past each test was carried out on longer terms: 1998, 2009, 2012.  This time only eight months passed since the last one. This new timescale is surprising especially taking into account that in April they seemed yet so far to master space launching. An element of continuity is the return of a more enigmatic, discording and vague approach towards outside world. Although they revealed rocket’s trajectory and plans even two days before they announced an extended window to 29 Dec for the launch. This signs a clear abandon of the extreme and unprecedented overture of April 2012 when the whole world was invited to assist at the failure, creating embarrassment in Pyongyang.

North Korean perspective

The reasons behind the launch are reaching far from the simple scientific achievement and could be divided into two categories: internal and external.

Kim leadership still unclear

The launch came after a turbulent start of leadership for Kim Jong-un. Nearly a year after his access to power, Kim Jong-un is still trying to shape the country and consolidate his power. Especially after the April failure his leadership appeared to be under scrutiny and weakened in relation to the powerful KPA and hardliners in the Worker’s Party. The April failure was not only a technical and scientific embarrassment but was also the first time that a North Korean leader was publicly humiliated and forced to admit a shortcoming. That sort of “papal infallibility” that used to be a virtue of previous leaders was suddenly unmasked in front of all North Koreans. However, along personal failure, this was also a dangerous sign of a weakness especially in the already turbulent relations with the military establishment.

Recent moves by Kim, tending to a timid relaxation of the rigid dirigist economy have further severed the relations with radicals in the regime. Farmers are now allowed to keep part of their production and constructions projects in Pyongyang are aimed at change and stimulate the image of the country. For many analysts this path, probably under Chinese financing, could be similar to the timid reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Ping in the ‘80s following his market’s socialism theory.

Taking into account the above, is then not surprising that the test achieves even more strength and significance. The successful launch give back to Kim Jong-un a sense of pride and recovered from a huge setback; makes him the first leader achieving the result and in a very short time. Nevertheless, is not all victory as Kim Jong-un had to compromise with the military and Worker’s Party by following a more prudent and vague strategy thus leaving also to critics space to joy.  The army and the party have obviously benefited too from the success, strengthening their propaganda aimed at the enemies and building a strong image of the country.

It appears anyway that Kim Jong-un has still a long road to go, before he can be sure to have consolidated his power. Reading behind the lines on the first statements coming from KCNA, for example, all credit has been given to Kim Jong-il “suggestions on previous errors” (perhaps from death?) and omit completely to mention Kim Jong-un. Only two days later, at the official celebration in Kim Il-Sung Square, the science chief greeted the leader for the accomplishment, not the military or workers party.

Scientific achievement or step closer to ICBM technology?

The launch has been a complete success for a country impoverished and isolated but still capable to achieve an extraordinary scientific achievement. If we exclude the regime’s propaganda, is out of doubt that this success put North Korea in a small club of space nations. However, the above judgment is true if we are making our consideration in relation to the scientific sphere. Different matter if we take into account the accusation of North Korea using the test as a cover to build an ICBM technology. But how far are they and how likely is that to happen?

North Korea has clearly capability on ballistic missiles, as shown already not only with this test but also with the impressive arsenal at disposal of short and medium range rockets. Nevertheless ICBM technology will require more than the above test. New missiles must be designed, capable not only to reach orbit but also to deliver a warhead by resisting the return into atmosphere; a space booster has to be assembled on a tower whilst a ICBM will require a more covert launch pad, like a mobile one; North Korea will need to fit a warhead, likely a nuclear one, for which more tests will required. North Korea has conducted nuclear tests in 2009 but the quantity of plutonium and tests itself were partially successful.

Obviously the above is a speculation based on what we have seen, recorded and admitted by North Korea. However, we should not forget that the secrecy is high and most of the real capability and disposal of nuclear weapons is still unclear. Based on the above, analysts tend to consider North Korea far from achieving ICBM technology and master the weaponry. In reality considering the last test there is a sense of nervousness, because if in April North Korea was on an “improbable tag” today is on the “probable one”. Two elements contributed in changing this rating and consider the possibility that the country will develop in the future an ICBM rocket: the fast pace of the progress and recent missiles paraded.

Both elements have something in common: North Korea may be not building the knowledge only by indigenous technology and know-how. The pace accelerated with an extraordinary progress from April making the above assumption more realistic; but is the second point that alarmed and removed skepticism. In April during a parade long range missiles on a mobile launcher were shown in Kim Il-Sung Square. Since then there has been huge speculation on how North Korea achieved that rockets and launchers and especially if they were real. Discordant opinions have been given on the subject, although general tendency is that they were probably a camouflage. However, the launchers were real and the camouflage may have been used for something they probably have rather  than for something nonexistent. The Chinese identification of the launchers made therefore clear a fact: North Korea is by legal or  illegal, direct or indirect means achieving technology from outside. The question is how and who is helping Pyongyang, creating ambiguity especially in the not so clear relation between Pyongyang and Beijing.

Test is a message to enemies and friends

The test is a clear message to enemies and friends of Pyongyang and is directed mainly to all the parties involved in this legacy, on which they have shared in common recent changes of leadership or electoral process.

The move is clearly once again directed especially to Washington; Obama re-election, although clear the way from a possible republican hardline presidency, represent for Pyongyang the necessity to remind an independent policy and not tolerating any sort of interference. In this behavior much has contributed especially the recent decision by US in allowing South Korea to install medium range missiles and repeated naval drills in the area. Increasing tensions in the China Sea between Japan and China and between China and rivals have put the US under attention in fact dragging them in the area.

Pyongyang does not accept US interference in the area and fear that the new pacific policy aimed at China in reality hide the desire to alter the geopolitical system and increasing the military capability of their allies.

The relations with China are therefore acquiring different significance. Pyongyang and Beijing seem to have more in common and need each other than previously thought. Beijing strategy is using North Korea as a wild card, but without real support in strengthening Pyongyang capability, seem to be at an end and; China may be not so cautious, preferring to see a strong North Korea ally in what is now becoming an area of increasing tension and of a likely new arm race.

International Reaction: Behind the Words, No Real Action

The People’s Republic of China, through the foreign ministry expressed concerns but at the same time invited all parties to avoid confrontation and hard measures. Move that as usual will mean one thing: no real action will follow after the UN condemnation.

Japan and South Korea condemned in strong terms North Korea as irresponsible and ignoring any international law as well as any restraint.

Russian foreign ministry released a statement stating “The new rocket launch carried out by North Korea flaunts the opinion of the international community, including calls from the Russian side, and leaves us with deep regret”

A spokesman for the US National Security Council described the launch as “another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behaviour”, and called for “a clear message that its violations of UN Security Council resolutions have consequences”.

The main accusations moved to North Korea can be summarised below:

-A violation of the moratorium in ballistic missile tests

-A threat to regional and world security

– Test for a satellite was in reality a long-range rocket test in disguise

UNSC condemned in strong words North Korea, but is very unlikely that a real action will follow without Chinese and Russian opposition.

The successful launch sparked uneasiness especially in Washington where now there are question marks on the possibility of North Korea developing ICBM. This successful test left the international community with the following feelings:

-North Korea, that was seen in April far from mastering space technology and LRICBM, is in reality making quick progresses.

-At present there is no danger for US territory but there is concern that North Korea may be able to acquire that necessary technology and being able to develop an LRICBM.

-There is still uncertainty on Kim’s leadership over the military.

-North Korea has more resources than believed and whose connections are not always so clear.

The US, that have been the major key player in this last 10 years of legacy, have lost that sense of security matured in April and, although not immediate, in the future may happen that their territory could be under range of North Korean missiles. Obama entourage in this second term are therefore in a different situation compared to the past: continue in the containment policy or engage Pyongyang directly? As we have mentioned several times, the US are pursuing a new strategy pointing towards the Pacific. North Korea, as China, did not welcome the announcement by President Obama. Even though this policy is clearly aimed at the Chinese, North Korea knows that is in the range of US desire for a different geopolitical system. The test was for North Korea the clear sign that they work actively in building a deterrent.

Japan and South Korea are obviously, as usual and rightly, the more concerned by the latest developments. Nothing has really changed in their position and North Korea is as dangerous today as it was yesterday. North Korea have a huge stockpile of short and medium range ballistic missiles, as well as chemical and bacteriological weapons, without counting a powerful and full-armed army. The test, even if confirmed for LRICBM, is clearly designed in anti-american stance and this does not alter Pyongyang hostility for Seoul and Tokyo.

China, a long-term ally of Pyongyang, is the key point of ambiguity and concern. In then past the western powers always believed that Beijing was between the hammer and anvil. In the past China has seemed uncomfortable with North Korea due to the major interest of the Chinese in presenting the country as a trusted economic partner as well as a solid market. This is now changing and the Chinese are not trusted anymore in their relations with Pyongyang, for two reasons: US policy and internal factors. The US strategy in the Pacific has angered the Chinese authority, as they are trying to build a powerful navy and consolidate their military strength. Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, fear of a strong Chinese military presence have found ears in Washington, now concerned by the rapid development of the Chinese air force, as well as the navy. China therefore sees North Korea as a valuable card to play to keep these rivals at large: make sure the Pyongyang regime does not collapse and give that sort of boost to underpin western desires. The other reason for concerns in China is related to the recent change of leadership that will lead a traditional and conservative policy internally and a more aggressive externally. The major concern is that Beijing could be helping Pyongyang in making progresses through financial support necessary to obtain the technology and know-how necessary to develop that deterrent.

North Korea remains therefore a threat to regional and global security, and the successful test will lead likely to more tensions. Kim Jong-un has already announces that new rockets will be tested and whether they will be for a peaceful means or to build a nuclear capability, it will only become clear at the next move of this unpredictable country.

Written by Matteo Figus

18/12/2012 at 21:22

Kashmir Dispute: no end in sight

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The Kashmir dispute represents an unresolved issue affecting not only the direct interested countries but also the regional security. A solution is still far from being obtained and escaped any tentative of a peaceful settlement.  India, Pakistan, China and the people of Kashmir are still locked in a status quo not acceptable for any of them, and for over 60 years debates are focusing on the alternatives.

The Kashmir region is disputed between the following countries: Union of India, Pakistan Republic, and People’s Republic of China. We cannot also forget the Kashmiris themselves, too often side lined in the struggle between these giants and forgotten as the key to any solution in the area.

The Kashmir region has acquired over the decades more importance, and with this the danger due the fact that skirmished along the border have led to three conflict between Pakistan and India and one between China and India. In the last 15 years, in addition to this, Pakistan and India became nuclear powers which, if on a side pose great risks in case of war between the two on the other has once gain confirmed the harsh rule of the equilibrium of terror.

An analysis of Kashmir in an objective and fair manner will need to asses history, claims and positions of the parties involved; any solution can only be suggested if a point will be focal in this achievement: Kashmiris cannot be left at window anymore. Intra states solution as we will see have led to wars and conflicts that did not change even of millimetre the borders and status quo.

Origin, partition and war

The Kashmir region was an early centre for Sanskrit scholar and largely influenced by Buddhism. The first rulers are thought to be the Kambojas; the Mauryan emperor Ashoka is often credited with having founded the city of Srinagar.

The first Islamic ruler was Shah Mir, founder of the Swati dynasty, a Pashtun from Swat region, (Pakhtunkhwa province of present day Pakistan).

The Muslim rule over Kashmir will last for over four centuries and some of these rulers were tolerant of all religions, following a traditional peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Hindus.

In 1819, the Kashmir valley passed from the control of the Durrani Empire of Afghanistan, to the conquering Sikh armies of Ranjit Singh of Lahore. The Sikhs captured also the lands of Ladakh and Baltistan to the east and north-east of Jammu.

The Princely State of Kashmir and Jammu was the result of the amalgamation of different regions, religions, and ethnicities. In the east, Ladakh was ethnically and culturally Tibetan and its inhabitants practised Buddhism; in the south, Jammu had a mixed population of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs; in central Kashmir Valley, the population was overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, with a small Hindu minority, Kashmiri brahmins or pandits; in the northeast, Baltistan had a population related to Ladakh, but which practised Shi’a Islam; in the north, Gilgit, was an area of Shi’a groups; and, in the west, Punch was Muslim, but of different ethnicity than the Kashmir valley. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, in which Kashmir sided with the British, and the subsequent assumption of direct rule by Great Britain, the princely state of Kashmir came under the paramount of the British Crown.

In the British census of India of 1941, Kashmir registered a Muslim majority population of 77%, a Hindu population of 20% and a sparse population of Buddhists and Sikhs comprising the remaining 3%.

In 1947, the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan where created after the end of British rule and according to the Indian Independence Act 1947, “the suzerainty of His Majesty over the Indian States lapses, and with it, all treaties and agreements in force at the date of the passing of this Act between His Majesty and the rulers of Indian States”. The states were  left to choose whether to join India or Pakistan or to stay independent. Jammu and Kashmir, had a predominantly Muslim population, and Pakistan expected to annex Kashmir.

The Maharaja Hari Singh, however, waited and frustrated Pakistani desires, who started to be concerned on a possible change of direction. This was the base for the first Kashmir war.

In October 1947, Pakistani militants and Muslim revolutionaries decided to take action following rumours that the Maharaja had a covert plan to annex Kashmir to India. An invasion started from Pakistani tribes in Dir, supported by local Muslims, whilst the Maharaja was forced to abandon Srinagar and seek Indian assistance. However, India and Pakistan had signed an agreement of non-intervention. This is where the dispute starts: whilst Pakistan accuses India of blackmailing the Maharaja and use the request of assistance for obtaining the accession; India accuses Pakistan of forcing the war and violate the agreement.

Unable to oppose the invasion, the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession on 25 October 1947 and accepted by the government of India on 27 October 1947. The agreement which ceded Jammu and Kashmir to India was signed by the Maharaja and Lord Mountbatten of Burma.

In Jammu and Kashmir, National Conference volunteers along Indian Army started to fight against the Pakistanis. This war, known as the First Kashmir War, lasted until 1948, when India asked for the conflict to be discussed at the UN Security Council.  The UN set up the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNCIP), and the UN Security Council passed Resolution 47 on 21 April 1948. The resolution stated:  an immediate cease-fire; called the Government of Pakistan to withdraw from the state of Jammu and Kashmir all tribesmen, Pakistani nationals and fighters who entered the state with the purpose of fighting against India; Government of India to reduce its forces to the minimum strength; ensure the circumstances are met for holding a plebiscite which ask the single question of Accession of the state to India or Pakistan.

Indian and Pakistani governments agreed to hold the plebiscite, but both countries were soon in violation of the resolution: whilst Pakistan did not withdraw its troops from Kashmir, thus violating the conditions for holding the plebiscite, the Indian Government did not make serious efforts to hold one in its areas.

Over the next several years, the UN Security Council passed four new resolutions, with an introduction of a clause requesting simultaneous withdrawal of both Indian and Pakistani troops from the region and putting forward 11 different proposals for the demilitarization of the region. All of these were accepted by Pakistan, but rejected by the Indian government. It must be noted that in spite of the evident violations committed by both countries, the UN could not enforce its resolutions as they were passed by the UNSC under Chapter VI of the United Nations Charter and that have non-binding character. These resolutions do not provide measure of enforcement, like a military intervention; this could have only happened if resolutions were passed under Chapter VII.

In 1962, another war erupted in the area, this time involving troops from the People’s Republic of China and India clashing in territory claimed by both. China prevailed at end and annexed the region called Aksai Chin, which has continued since then. The line that separates India from China in this region is known as the “Line of Actual Control”.

In 1965 and 1971, India and Pakistan clashed again in an all-out war that resulted in a defeat for Pakistan. After the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the Pakistani military surrendered in East Pakistan leading way for the establishment of Bangladesh. More importantly for Kashmir, in 1972 a new agreement signed by India and Pakistan, the Simla Agreement, agreed to settle all issues by peaceful means using the UN resolutions as blueprint.

However, by end of the eighties the situation deteriorated again in Kashmir, paving way for a new source of tension and conflict, this time arising from insurgencies. In 1987, after the challenge of a disputed election the first movement was founded, composed by Mujahedeen insurgents, and which continues to this day. Many believe that these groups receive support from Pakistan and whose origins are linked to Afghanistan following the end of the soviet occupation. Another powerful movement was founded by Yasin Malik, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, along with Ashfaq Majid Wani and Farooq Ahmad Dar (alias Bitta Karatay). Since 1995, Malik has renounced the use of violence and different views with the senior leader, Farooq Siddiqui (alias Farooq Papa), resulted in a spilt in which Bitta Karatay, Salim Nanhaji, and other senior comrades joined Farooq Papa.

India accuses Pakistan of supplying these groups with arms and strengthening the Islamist organisations; Pakistan claims these insurgents are Jammu and Kashmir citizens, and are rising up against the Indian army in an independence movement.  Pakistan denies that it has or currently is supplying weapons and ammunition to the insurgents.

In mid-1999, there was the last heavy and direct confrontation between India and Pakistan. Insurgents and Pakistani soldiers from Pakistani Kashmir infiltrated into Jammu and Kashmir and took control of areas along the Line of Control that due to altitude and winter weather, India vacate. This resulted in a high-scale conflict between the Indian and the Pakistan Army.

Fears of the Kargil War turning into a nuclear war provoked the then United States President Bill Clinton to pressure Pakistan to retreat. Faced with losses of personnel and posts, the Pakistan Army withdrew from the area, ending the conflict. India reclaimed control of the peaks, which they now patrol and monitor all year long.

Kashmir Dispute Analysis

Below is a table showing the ethnic/religious composition of Kashmir:

Administered   by Area Population  %   Muslim  %   Hindu  %   Buddhist  %   Other
India Kashmir   valley ~4   million 95% 4%
Jammu ~3   million 30% 66% 4%
Ladakh ~0.25   million 46% (Shia) 50% 3%
Pakistan Northern   Areas ~1   million 99%
Azad   Kashmir ~2.6   million 100%
China Aksai   Chin
To the   above data we need to add that in Pakistan administered Kashmir, there are   around 1.5 million refugees from Indian-administered Kashmir; at least   506,000 people in Indian administered Kashmir are displaced due to insurgents   activities, mostly are Hindu Pandits; that although Hindu are majority in   Jammu, some districts such Poonch, Rajouri, Kishtwar, and Doda have a   Muslim majority; that Shia   Muslims make up the majority in Kargil district in   Ladakh region.

Indian view

The position of the Indian Governments can be summarized as follow:


  1. The Instrument of Accession of the State of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India, signed by Maharaja Hari Singh on 25 October 1947 was a legal act, completely valid under terms of the Government of India Act (1935), Indian Independence Act (1947) and international law.
  2. This act was final and irrevocable.
  3. There is no evidence of any deceit practiced by India on Kashmir.
  4. The Constituent assembly of Jammu and Kashmir had unanimously ratified the Maharaja’s Instrument of Accession to India and had adopted a constitution for the state that called for a perpetual merger of Jammu and Kashmir with the Union of India.
  5. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1172 urges the need to resolve the dispute through mutual dialogue and does not call for a plebiscite.
  6. United Nations Security Council Resolution 47 cannot be implemented since Pakistan failed to withdraw its forces from Kashmir.
  7. UNSC Resolution 47 is obsolete, since the geography, demographics and political status of the region have been permanently altered.
  8. India rejects Pakistan’s two-nation theory and considers that Kashmir, despite being a Muslim-majority state, is in many ways an integral part of secular India.
  9. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was provided significant autonomy in Article 370 of the Constitution of India.
  10. All differences between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir, need to be settled through bilateral negotiations as agreed to by the two countries when they signed the Simla Agreement on 2 July 1972.

Based on the above, the Indian analysis concentrates on the following aspects: position on Kashmir solutions, threats, strenghts, possible scenarios and consequences.

India rejects independence, whole or part of Kashmir, mostly for internal reasons as this could undermine the stability of the Indian Union by strengthening other secessionist groups or states. Independence could also increase pressures from Indian nationalist groups opposed to any negotiations or territorial amputations of India, thus weakening the central government.

The Union of India is affected by a centripetal force, generated by three threats: internal, Kashmiri and external. This force could pull apart the Union if left uncontrolled and unchallenged. Internally, India struggle to contain requests from nationalists and separatists movements, which represent the main obstacle for the central government on any Kashmir solution. Independence of Kashmir could re-ignite secessionist aspirations; in the same way keeping the status quo, will expose India to dangerous activities by secessionists and insurgents in Kashmir, many of which have strong Islamists influences.

In Kashmir, India face a growing religious character replacing the secular struggle by Kashmiris. Groups with strong affiliations with Pakistan or with strong and radical views of Islam are increasing their role.

Externally the main threat is not only Pakistan but especially China. Although the Kashmir dispute sees Pakistan as the main contender, India knows this could trigger major developments on a regional scenario, where China is clearly hostile to any solution which will benefit India.

Although India is facing the above threats, has also in recent years assisted to a rapid economic development, and a strengthening of its military forces that ultimately are not only putting the country in an advantage with Pakistan but also are aiming at filling the gap against China. India has especially improved its position on the international scenario. During the Cold War, India was isolated in the contest against China and Pakistan, due mainly to the preferential support of the USA to Islamabad and Beijing. At the time the US saw both countries in an anti-Soviet function, with China able to disrupt Soviet actions in areas such South East Asia and Africa and Pakistan as a base of support for Mujaheddin fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union, on its part, used to appease India but avoiding a direct involvement due to the Indian neutralist position. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially after 2001, two elements changed India’s position: US-Pakistan relations and new perceptions on China’s threat. The US after 9/11, linked themselves to their traditional ally Pakistan in the war of terror, and President Musharraf was seen as a valuable support in the struggle against Al Qaida and the Taliban. Over the years, and especially with the Obama administration, it appeared clear that the Pakistani position was, to say the least, vague and suspicious. The assassination of Bin Laden was the lowest point and somehow the demonstration of American suspects. Since then the relations are clearly severed and a distance is now visible between the two countries. China, with its staggering economic growth and military progress, has become now for the US the main threat to security and US interests and lead Obama to unveil a new strategy pointing East aimed at contain China’s aggressive stance. The US, along a traditional military flexing of muscle, also unveiled a surprising change of direction in its relations with old enemies, now seen instead as valuable support in cordoning off China. Examples are the new cordial relations with Vietnam and India. Although India is still under the threats mentioned further above, its position is clearly improving on a diplomatic level and an eventual dispute on Kashmir could pay off for New Delhi by obtaining this time a more decisive and strong support from the US.

How India could be affected by possible scenarios in Kashmir?

Independence of whole Kashmir (India and Pakistan administered territories): Could undermine stability of
Union by strengthening separatists and secessionists movements; Kashmir will be institutional weak and probably under strong influence of the Muslim majority; increased risks of revenge or ethnic clashes against the Hindu minority; Pakistan will exert a strong influence; could be a harbor of Islamist and terrorist organizations with the aim of attack India.

Partition based on current situation: Pakistan will obtain its administered areas and India its current ones, except the Kashmir valley which will oppose to accede to India. Could resolve potentially some of the issues, but will still leave open the problem of the Muslim majority in the Kashmir Valley which will oppose Indian authority. The current partition is therefore impractical.

Accession to India: Very unlikely that India will retain its current composition, as Kashmiris in the Valley will opt either for independence or accession to Pakistan.

Accession to Pakistan: Pakistan could obtain along its territories also the Kashmir Valley. This however does not diminish risks, as human rights violation, autonomy requests, presence of Islamist or nationalist groups could create instability and wage war against India.

Independence of the Muslim Kashmir territories: Could be a solution but Pakistani influence would be great and India will suffer from the risk of Islamist infiltrations.

Pakistani view

  • Rejection of the Instrument of Accession to India. Pakistan insists      that the Maharaja was not a popular leader, and was regarded as a tyrant      by most Kashmiris.
  • Since Maharaja Singh had fled Kashmir, following Pakistani      invasion, Pakistan asserts that the Maharaja held no authority in      determining Kashmir’s future.
  • Pakistan argues that even if the Maharaja had any authority in      determining the future of Kashmir, he signed the Instrument of Accession      under pressure, thus invalidating the legitimacy of his actions.
  • Pakistan claims that Indian forces were in Kashmir before the      Instrument of Accession was signed, and that therefore Indian troops were      in violation of the Standstill      Agreement, which was designed to maintain the status quo in Kashmir      (although India was not signatory to the Agreement, which was signed      between Pakistan and the Hindu ruler of Jammu and Kashmir).
  • The popular Kashmiri insurgency demonstrates that the Kashmiri      people no longer wish to remain within India. Pakistan suggests that this      means that Kashmir either wants to be with Pakistan or independent.
  • According to the two-nation theory, which      is one of the theories that is cited for the partition that created India      and Pakistan, Kashmir should have been with Pakistan, because it has a      Muslim majority.
  • India has shown disregard to the resolutions of the UN Security      Council and the United Nations Commission in India and Pakistan by failing      to hold a plebiscite to determine the future allegiance of the state.
  • The Chenab formula was a      compromise proposed in the 1960s, in which the Kashmir valley and other      Muslim-dominated areas north of the Chenab      river would go to Pakistan, and Jammu and other Hindu-dominated regions      would go to India.

As seen on India, which the position of Pakistan, its strengths and possible scenarios?

The Pakistani position on Kashmir, although sometimes allude to independence, in reality opposes it. Nevertheless this rejection is not total and would be seen as the less evil instead of a pro Indian plebiscite. Mainly Pakistan rejects independence under the two state theory and dreams of a great Pakistan.

Pakistan main weakness is internal rather than external; the government in Islamabad appears unable to control its borders and especially the activities of secret services and the Army. This has become evident since Musharraf retirement. The Taliban presence, inability to counter insurgencies not only in Kashmir but also in Afghanistan, have led many to suspect that two levels of powers are present in Pakistan. Especially after the assassination of Bin Laden, and even after the attacks in Mumbai, many believe that the secret services are behind a strategy that is in sharp conflict with that of their main traditional ally, the US. The government appear to lose everyday its legitimization at the eye of the Pakistanis for not taking strong position against for example drone raids by the US or the use of national territory for US special operation without consent from Islamabad. The government appears on the verge of a military coup, seen as the only way to keep the country united and assure control over the nuclear arsenal.

Directly proportional to India’s growing position on the international scenario, is proportional decline of Pakistan. Its strained relationship with the US is the main factor undermining Islamabad positions. China has maintained its favorable support to Pakistan both on diplomatic and military level, but losing the USA to India is a major blow and the end of an era for Pakistan foreign policy.

How Pakistan could be affected by possible scenarios in Kashmir?

Independence of whole Kashmir (India and Pakistan administered territories): Would not be welcomed by Islamabad due to Hindu minority and risks of conflicts. Nevertheless, Muslim majority will probably have to look to Islamabad for assistance.

Partition based on current situation: Could not satisfy Pakistan due to Kashmir valley under Indian control.

Accession to India: Very unlikely that Kashmir Valley will stay with India as well as Kashmir under Pakistani administration will vote in favor.

Accession to Pakistan: Accession to Pakistan would be welcome if only the Muslim inhabited areas will join.

Independence of the Muslim Kashmir territories: Could be a solution but Pakistani influence would be great and India will probably have a hostile stance towards the new state, obliging Pakistan to intervene for defence.

Chinese view

  • China did not accept the boundaries of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu,      north of the Aksai Chin and the Karakoram that were proposed by the British.
  • China settled its border disputes with Pakistan in the Trans Karakoram Tract in      1963 with the provision that the settlement was subject to the final solution of the Kashmir dispute.

China rejects independence for the same principles stated by India, fearing secessionist groups or renaissance of old questions such Tibet or Xinjiang. China does not consider its territory part of the current dispute between India and Pakistan.

China feels to be in a stronger position, especially under a military point of view and where the gap with the Indian army is still wide although now starting to match in competition. Nevertheless, Beijing is aware that on the international scenario its position is now changing and challenging openly India could not be  as easy as it was in the past due to US interest in New Delhi partnership. This will explain as why China will always appease any solution favorable to Pakistan, and any solution on Kashmir that does not affect China borders, not exert influence in the Tibetan area, does not strength Islamic movements in Xinjiang. China will basically accept any solution that in reality does not solve and dissipate completely the tensions between Pakistan and India, under a principle of weakening the adversary by keeping it “busy” in struggle elsewhere.

Kashmir view

Kashmiris point of view has been neglected long enough and most of the inability in finding a solution is the stubbornness of India and Pakistan to treat the question as a purely internal and national matter. A plebiscite, as recommended by UN, never took place; instead local elections have been used sometimes by either countries to demonstrate willingness of the population to maintain the status quo. Along the tensions and wars fought by India, Pakistan and China, Kashmir has been the theatre of an intense insurgent action during the nineties and a series of uprising during the last ten years.

The general perception by Kashmiris is far from being considered as accepting the status quo; the Freedom in the World 2006 report categorized Indian-administered Kashmir as “partly free”, and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, as well as the country of Pakistan, as “not free”. India claims that a large proportion of the Jammu and Kashmir population wishes to remain with India. However, this proportion is higher in Ladakh and Jammu, whilst in the Muslim dominate Kashmir Valley only 9% said that they would be better off with India. According to a 2007 poll conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, 87% of respondents in the Kashmir Valley prefer independence over union with India or Pakistan. However, a survey by the Chatham House in both Indian and Pakistani administered Kashmir found that support of independence was only at 43% and 44% respectively. The above gives a clear idea of the complexity of the current situation and how India and Pakistan have distanced themselves from reality. It has to be said, honestly, that improvements have been made by both countries following international mediation:  India and Pakistan began to withdraw troops from the international border on 10 June 2002; effective on 26 November 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to maintain a ceasefire along the Line of Control, and the Siachen glacier, the first “total ceasefire” declared by both powers in nearly 15 years. In February 2004, Pakistan increased pressure on Pakistanis fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir to adhere to the ceasefire.

Indian administered Kashmir

Claims of human rights abuses have been made against the Indian Armed Forces and the armed insurgents operating in Jammu and Kashmir. Since 1989, over 50,000 Kashmiris (by some reports nearly 100,000) have died during the conflict. Some human rights organizations have alleged that Indian Security forces have killed hundreds of Kashmiris by indiscriminate use of force and torture, firing on demonstrations, custodial killings, encounters and detentions. The government of India denied that torture was widespread, but it admitted that some custodial crimes may have taken place. According to one human rights report in Kashmir there were more than three hundred cases of “disappearances” since 1990. Another accusation states that the Islamic terrorists, infiltrated the region in 1989, began an ethnic cleansing campaign to convert Kashmir to a pure Muslim state. According to the same report, since then nearly 400,000 Pandits were either murdered or forced to leave their homes.

Pakistan administered Kashmir

Claim of religious discrimination and restricting religious freedom in Azad Kashmir have been made against Pakistan. It is also accused of systemic suppression of civil liberties and demonstrations against the government. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported that a number of Islamist militant groups, including some affiliated to  al-Qaeda, operate from bases in Pakistani-administered Kashmir with the tacit permission of Pakistani intelligence. According to Shaukat Ali, chairman of the International Kashmir Alliance, “On one hand Pakistan claims to be the champion of the right of self-determination of the Kashmiri people, but has denied the same rights in its controlled parts of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan”. As seen above, both India and Pakistan are accused of serious human rights abuses that ultimately still encourage part of the population to prefer the independence rather than an accession.

Independence of Kashmir: Could only work if a larger state will be formed and ethnic/religious tolerance and freedom is assured. A Kashmir independent will be Muslim overall, and if Jammu and Ladakh will join, there are fears of possible clashes and revenges on either side. It is therefore very unlikely that Jammu and Ladakh will abandon India, and a plebiscite will surely confirm the status quo. However, the Kashmir Valley represents the real question mark. If in the Pakistani administered territory the independence receive less than 50% of support, in Kashmir valley could reach higher marks. This means that whilst the rest of Kashmir will join Pakistan, only the valley will stay out. But what real independence this state will have? It could only work if a stable and larger Kashmir would be declared by the joining of the Azad Kashmir. If alone, the Valley will probably succumb under the double threat of Pakistani interference on one side and internal Islamist organization pushing for a war against India on the other. In this case scenario, Pakistan therefore should ensure control of the border and disband militias; as well India ensuring that the army will control its borders and not exceed its authority. Both countries will have to help the new state in building stable institutions and security; a Kashmir independent should be neutralist and it must be legitimized by a plebiscite from resident Kashmiris only, under UN supervision.

Partition: A partition on actual basis but with the Kashmir valley joining Pakistan could work if Pakistan and India assure the demilitarization of the border. It will offer the advantage of both countries to face each other directly and thus negotiations will be easier; both countries will have to deal with human rights abuses enquiries and ensure autonomy will be granted to regions still different from the rest of their national structure. The last task it could be prove more difficult for Pakistan rather than India as the latter has already a variegated and multiethnic composition. Pakistan must ensure the disarmament and disband of militias and Islamist groups. As for the independence solution, this can only be legitimized by an official, impartial and Kashmir only based plebiscite to be held under UN supervision.


Based on the above assumptions, we can only recognize the complexity of the dispute and the enormous task that the Indian and Pakistani diplomacy face. Nevertheless, a solution must be reach for two reasons: Kashmiris must be able to shape their future and have peace, a choice that ultimately is in their hands and their rights, and for which an effort must be made by all parties involved; if left unsolved, the Kashmir dispute could be more dangerous than thought, not only for the nuclear threat posed by both countries but especially because in a changing geopolitical system, this could generate instability reaching far greater extent, with the shockwaves pointing to Beijing rather than Islamabad. The final consequence of the last point does not need further explanations.

Written by Matteo Figus

06/11/2012 at 13:41

South China Sea Dispute: a 21st Century Battlefield?

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722GRUJDCBDB The South China Sea is one of those areas of the world where old territorial disputes are increasing political and diplomatic tensions among the bordering powers. The disputes, that are based not only on political prestige or on territorial claims, are increased by strategic and economic factors. The above has generated in recent years concerns especially for the increasing militarization of the area, united with dangerous signs of a possible confrontation between not only the countries historically involved but also with the United States.

This case study will try to ascertain the roots of these disputes, claims as well as an analysis of the possible scenarios.


South China Sea

The South China Sea is becoming a central stage of the international diplomacy and an area of possible military confrontation between the powers claiming rights on the islands and waters. Old territorial claims, based on national prestige or ancestry links, are now sidelined by additional economic resources as well as the strategic importance that this corner of the Pacific represent in a new geopolitical system.

The reasons that make this area so important and create concerns are:

  1. Increase in China’s interference
  2. China’s grow as a regional power
  3. Neighbouring countries hostility and fear of a possible Chinese hegemony
  4. New US strategy in the Pacific Ocean

The South China Sea is situated in a portion of the Pacific Ocean that stretches from Singapore and the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, to the Strait of Taiwan in the northeast, including over 200 small islands, mainly located in the Spratly and Paracel Island chains. Many of these islands are partially submerged and not suitable for a permanent human settling. Their importance, however, is more political and strategically than geographical, as who controls the islands de facto controls the sea and all its resources as well as holding the keys for the access to one of the busiest naval routes in the world.

The South China Sea contains also oil and gas resources that are essential especially to those developing countries that will find in this way an alternative to the dependence from external powers or the West. Especially China, is seen as the major player interested in controlling this area as to ensure stability for its economic growth.

It is then not surprising if all the above has generated along the years the appetite of the regional powers, with six main contenders: People’s Republic of China, Republic of China (Taiwan), Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.


Origin of the claims

The main confrontation is around  the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands (Respectively called Xisha and Nansha by the Chinese; or the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa by the Vietnamese). The Spratly are contended mainly by China, Vietnam and Malaysia, but we can fairly say that all the area is an intricate puzzle of claims by several countries.


During the Second World War, the Spratly Islands were occupied by the Japanese forces driving out France. In 1949, Vietnam (Saigon) received ownership, as per succession from France, over the Paracel Islands and the Spratlys Islands. The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty then reinforced this position of the South Vietnamese government, as Japan renounced on any claims over the islands. Nevertheless, this increased Chinese hostility, as they already seized some islands in the Spratly and Paracels before the world war: in 1909, some islands in Xisha (the Paracels); in 1946 Itu Aba (in the Spratlys) and Phu Lan Island (in the Paracels); in the 50’s the People’s Republic of China seized Hoang Sa (Paracels) islands. Vietnam accused Chinese aggression policy and in January 1974, Chinese military units seized islands in the Paracels occupied by South Vietnamese armed forces, and Beijing claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys. After the victory of the North Vietnam over the South, the People’s Army of Vietnam decided in the spring 1975 to re-occupy the Spratly Islands, claiming succession from Saigon government.

Vietnamese claims are based on history and the continental shelf principle. Vietnam claims the entire Spratly Islands and an extensive area of the South China Sea, although these claims are not clearly defined.

Taiwan-Republic of China (ROC)

Taiwan currently holds Itu Aba Island, and is mainly used by fishermen as a rest stop. Itu Aba Island is located at the northwest end of the northern part of the Spratly Archipelago near the Cheng Ho Reefs (Tizard Bank). When the World War II erupted in 1941, Japan took control over the island and the rest of the South China Sea. At the end of the Second World War, according to the “spirit of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation”, China (Kuomintang) claimed sovereignty over The Spratly and Paracel archipelago. This stance was reinforced by the 1952 “Treaty of Peace with Japan“, under which the Spratly and Paracel archipelago should be returned to China. On 08th June 1956, Taiwan sent troops to occupy Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratlys. Vietnam claims the island as per succession from France, that administered the island between 1938 and 1945.

Taiwanese Navy has guarded the island for over fifty years, and they established a garrison on Itu Aba on a permanent basis, transforming the island in a modern and well-developed centre.

People’s Republic of China (PRC)

Chinese claims on the Spratly and Paracel Islands are based on historical reason, although these are not clearly defined.

One of the historical points that China uses to justify its claims are the naval expeditions to the Spratly Islands by the Han Dynasty in 110 AD and the Ming Dynasty from 1403-1433 AD. To boost its claim China refers often to the constant fishing industry as well as archaeological evidence. The first sovereignty claims can be dated between the end of the 19th and early 20th
century, when China asserted claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands.

In 1947, after the Japanese occupation and the world war, China (Under Kuomintang government) produced the famous “eleven dotted line” doctrine under which all the islands within that line were seen as Chinese sovereignty. When in 1949, the Communist won the mainland and proclaimed the People’s Republic, the doctrine was revised scaling the dotting line from 11 to nine, under the principle of fraternization and internationalism for which their comrades in North Vietnam were granted two islands to build radar installations in their fight against imperialism. This doctrine is still considered by the Communist Party of China as an ulterior reason to legitimate Chinese claims over the entire South China Sea, including the Spratly and Paracel Islands. China considers the South Sea as internal waters or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), contrasting vehemently with other nation’s claims along their territorial coastline and waters. This initial doctrine has not changed along the years or succession of leadership, from Mao Zedong and Zhou EnLai to Deng Xiaoping, China has reiterated the message that negotiations over its sovereignty are not on the table. Speeches and words have been followed often by action: in 1976, China enforced its claim upon the Paracel Islands by seizing them from Vietnam. China refers since to the Paracel Islands as the Xisha Islands, and includes them as part of its Hainan Island Province.


Philippines claims are around the Kalayaan Islands, as Philippines often refer when talking about some Spratly Islands, and can be traced since the mid 1950’s. The islands are situated in a section of the South China Sea west of the Philippine archipelago. The area is mainly used for the fishing industry and it is claimed that could host a potential source of petroleum deposits.

In 1956, a Philippine Lawyer, Tomas Cloma, visited the islands, claiming them for itself by the name of Kalayaan (Freedomland), and then asking the Philippine government to establish a formal protectorate.

This proclamation encountered the strong hostility from Vietnam that condemned the occupation of its Truong Sa Islands as a military aggression and not legitimate under international law. This position was reinforced in 1968, when Manila sent its troops to consolidate the position by taking advantage from the situation of war in Vietnam.  By 1974, Philippines have already built garrisons in five of the islands. In 1978, President Marcos made formal claims by declaring that fifty-seven of the islands were part of Palawan Province by virtue of their presence on the continental margin of the archipelago.

Along with disputes with the Vietnamese, the Philippines are also engaged in contentious with the PRC over Mischief Reef. China has sent naval vessels into the area and has constructed buildings that Beijing maintains are shacks to serve Chinese fishing boats. Manila accuses the PRC to cover a militarization process and claim that the Philippine Air Force has proof demonstrating that these structures are hosting radar systems for military surveillance.

Philippines claims over its Spratly have clearly defined coordinates, based both upon the proximity principle as well as on the explorations of a Philippine explorer in 1956.

In 1971, the Philippines officially claimed eight islands, that it refers to as the Kalayaan, arguing that: were not part of the Spratly Islands; and as they not have belonged to anybody were open to being claimed.


The Government of Malaysia currently has sovereignty over Layang Layang (Swallow’s Reef) in the Spratly Islands. It was built by the Malaysian government, which collected sand and connected two isolated reefs by filling the channel between them. The Malaysian government opted to build an airstrip, a dive resort and a military installation on this reef since in 1983. Seventy soldiers live on this island and the dive resort is open to any visiting scuba divers. Claims are based upon the continental shelf principle, and have clearly defined coordinates.


Does not claim any of the islands, but claims part of the South China Seas nearest to it as part of its continental shelf. In 1984, Brunei declared an EEZ that includes Louisa Reef.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) coastal states have the right to establish sovereignty over adjacent waters out to a maximum of 12 nautical miles from the nation’s coastline, including the coastline of offshore islands. These enclosed waters are known as the coastal state’s territorial sea.

However, In June 1998, the PRC passed the “Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act”, establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical mile limits from its coastal baseline, and claimed the right to enforce laws in the EEZ, including security laws and regulations. Based on the act, the PRC does not recognize the airspace above its EEZ as international airspace. China consider all maritime data collection activities, including military intelligence and hydrographic, as falling within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provisions for marine scientific research and therefore requiring Chinese authority consent before they could be carried out in the EEZ.

The US has protested this sovereignty claim as a violation of international law and has conducted a program to discredit Chinese claim. The US retains these claims excessive and violating the freedom of international passages. This is often followed by some gesture of force, where US Navy and Air Force sail or fly on purpose within the Chinese EEZ without consent to reinforce their right and determination to enforce the international law.

With all the above it is not surprising then that military skirmishes have occurred several times in the past three decades. The most serious occurred in 1976, when China invaded and captured the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, and in 1988, when Chinese and Vietnamese navies clashed at Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, with the sinking of several Vietnamese boats and the killing of over 70 sailors. Other incidents involved China and Philippines in 1995, when Philippines military intervened to evict the Chinese from Mischief Reef; Taiwan military fired on Vietnamese ships in 1995; China and Philippines navies clashed again in 1996; Vietnam Navy fired on Philippines fishing boats; in 2005 Chinese ships fired upon two Vietnamese fishing boats from Thanh Hoa Province, killing 9 people and detaining one ship.

The current situation

The recent years have seen increasing tensions especially between the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Philippines, with the US at the window. The “nine-dotted line” exists only in theory as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries claim the reefs within. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect on 16 November 1994, resulted in even more intense disputes between the countries.

Chinese officials reiterated to the US to not interfere in the South China Sea, as it is seen as a core interest with the same importance of Taiwan and Tibet and for which no negotiation is on the table. In October 2011, the Global Times (published by the PCC, People’s Daily), warned neighbouring countries of possible military consequences following incidents involving Philippines and South Korean Navies detaining Chinese fishing boats in the region.

Nevertheless, Beijing did not close the door to talks with the counterparts, although these negotiations only included aspects such as marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and fighting transnational crime, without touching the hot issue of sovereignty or exploitation of natural resources.

As of 2012, the People’s Republic of China controls only eight of the Spratly Islands and Taiwan is accounting for one. Vietnamese troops have seized twenty-nine of them, the greatest number so far, the Philippines controls eight, Malaysia controls five, and Brunei controls two.

The year has seen also an increasing tension following the April standoff by the Philippine warship Gregorio del Pilar with two Chinese vessels in the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both nations. The Philippine Navy had been trying to arrest a group of Chinese fisherman, but the surveillance boats prevented them.

On 14 April 2012, U.S. and the Philippines held their yearly military exercises in Palawan, sending a strong signal to the Chinese authorities. The Philippines said that the United States had pledged to protect the country from attacks in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a day after China issued a warning over a territorial row in the waters. Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he had received the assurances during talks in Washington. Gazmin also said that the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defence Secretary Leon Panetta stressed they were not taking sides in the dispute, but they assured the Philippines that the United States would honour the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty.

In July 2012, the National Assembly of Vietnam passed a law demarcating Vietnamese sea borders to include the Spratly and Paracel islands.

On 22 July 2012, the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic decided to establish the Sansha garrison, a move that was criticized by the Philippines and Vietnam.

Is the risk of a military confrontation real?

A military conflict in the South China is a possibility and its likelihood is increased by the growing tensions between some countries and by external factors. Although all the parties involved reiterated on several occasion to work for a peaceful solution, mixed signals are being sent and lead many to believe that a confrontation is not ruled out.

Of all the parties involved, the main risk for a confrontation includes the following countries: People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Philippines. The reasons of these hostilities are based not only on past clashes but also on present divergent positions and growing militarization of their posts. The other reason that increases the chances of a military confrontation involves the US. Although not directly involved in the dispute, as traditional ally of Philippines and major player in the area, it would be very difficult for the US not to be dragged in it. To this, we must add recent changes in US strategy.


This is the most likely of all conflicts to happen, although its effects may be limited to the area. The disputes between the two countries are not only related to the EEZ claimed by Chinese authorities but also under economic reasons, as it  a row over natural gas deposits, especially in the disputed area of Reed Bank, located eighty nautical miles from Palawa(Philippines). Both countries have adopted in recent times a hard line towards the opponent and on several occasion the two navies has come to contact. Obviously, on a military point of view Philippines would not stand a chance against the powerful Chinese Navy, as well as would not be able to sustain a major attack. However, the conflict may have dangerous extensions because the US cannot be left at the window. The US are a traditional ally of Manila and a major player in the Pacific. A conflict would not be welcomed in the US especially because will put Washington in a very difficulty position: honour Philippines Defence Treaty and intervene or stand aside? The first position will increase the risk of a military exchange with Chinese forces, thus enlarging dangerously the theatre; the other solution, with a disinterested stance, will create resentment in the Philippines. In addition, this could send dangerous signals to the other allies in East Asia and Pacific, creating the idea that the US are abandoning the area as strategic importance, therefore increasing Chinese pressure.


China and Vietnam are also under scrutiny for a possible military confrontation, even though many believe this is the less likely to happen. The relations between the two countries have been strained in the past decades, both for regional issues such the Spratlys and Paracels as well as under ideological positions.

During the 50’s and 60’s the People’s Republic of China assisted North Vietnam in the name of socialist internationalism by giving permission to install radars in two of the spatrly islands. However, after the victory of Hanoi, and subsequent alignment with Moscow and the USSR block, China became increasingly hostile to Vietnam. In the seventies and eighties, at a time when China and US were part of an axis against the USSR and its allies, Vietnam was attacked by China with the loss of Paracels, whilst Vietnam destroyed the Chinese proxy state of the Khmer rouge in Cambodia.

Relations between the countries remained difficult, and although ideological differences have now disappeared after USSR fall, the unexpected change of alliances and relations in East Asia-Pacific are increasing especially Chinese uneasiness. The US, a traditional enemy of Vietnam, are now pursuing a policy to realignment where Hanoi can be seen as a valuable dam against Chinese expansionism. In a possible conflict between China and Vietnam, Hanoi may request help from the US. The latter may intervene due to financial and economic interest in the area. However, as per the Philippines scenario, a military intervention or even a navy presence will increase the chances of military exchange with Chinese forces.

Nevertheless, a conflict is a less likely scenario and in recent times, both China and Vietnam have pledged to work together to resolve their differences and solve issue by peaceful means. Since October 2011, a more relaxed relation has been seen between the countries although there are question marks on the effectiveness of the accord and its ability to stand the test of time.

The US role

The least, but the most dangerous of all the possible confrontations, will see China and US clash. This is obviously something that both Beijing and Washington would like to avoid, even though both know that it may happen by miscalculation, intervention in assistance to an ally or by aggressive actions.

The US are not directly involved in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but they hold several reasons for not being considered out of the picture: economic, diplomatic ties, strategic importance.

The US have important economic ties with several Asian countries such Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and mainly with China. Each year, $5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea and U.S. trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total. The United States have all interest in preserving relations with China as an important market and a necessary cooperation to guarantee stability in the area. US economic interests are at stake in all the area, and a conflict is seen as dangerous to stability and could affect its economy especially in the recent dangerous crisis. A conflict, were the US will be opposed to China or even where they actively support an ally, can create a reprisal by the Chinese through blocking the trade or affecting US market. We cannot forget that China is one of the huge creditors of the US debt and a major market for goods as well as importing several products.

The US are also likely to be dragged into the disputes by diplomatic ties being a traditional ally to Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia. All the above countries are wary of Chinese growing military capability, and consider the US obliged to intervene if Beijing will attack one of them. Like in the case of the Philippines, the US cannot afford to lose the support and diplomatic weight of these countries as this would undermine their position in area that is already theatre of several issues, Taiwan and North Korea to mention some. For these reasons the US whilst on one side are strengthening their military assistance and support to traditional allies such Philippines and South Korea, on the other are also conducting of policy similar to that applied to the Bolshevik regime in 1917. The US, by including Vietnam in the pot of the friendly countries, are  building a strong circle that is closing china, a sort of “sanitary belt”: Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Vietnam, will close the South Pacific, whilst recent new relations with India has clearly angered China. This clamorous change of policy, see the US abandoning the pro Chinese Pakistan, and traditional ally, for a country usually supported in the by the Soviet Union first and Russia after against China. Especially this Indian connection will offer the US a huge deterrent to Chinese aggressivity as India itself has nuclear capability, and has a navy becoming more powerful.

The third reason for the US is related to strategic factors. They consider the Pacific as the new area of tension in the coming years, mainly due to the rapid transformation of China from regional power in possible superpower. The Pacific, that had enormous importance during the Second World War, has been relegated to a second stage during the cold war mainly because the US Navy had an undisputed supremacy over the world seas such Britain enjoyed in the 19th century. Even the Soviet navy, although powerful was limited in its capability and mainly located in area such Vladivostok, the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. During the cold war, the USSR tried to regain balance by building a nuclear superiority, a stronger army and a missile defence to compensate US supremacy on air and sea. This also led the US to maintain the navy at high levels but without giving a supremacy role, due to absence of threats.

The above strategy is now obsolete and China is seen as the “new Japan of WWII”: a powerful country with a growing navy that in prospect could undermine US supremacy. The risk is not only loosing strategic and military supremacy but also lose economic control and being than dragged in conflicts in the area.

If the US on one side maintains their neutrality and announces to work for a peaceful resolution by all the countries involved, on the other the new strategy that put emphasis on the Pacific, with major reshuffle of armed personnel, is a clear signal that Washington considers the area its 21st century centre of operations such has been Europe in the 20th century.

Obviously, a conflict with China is not what Washington hopes for but they do not renounce to their position in rejecting China’s EEZ policy. The United States maintains that nothing in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) negates the right of military forces of all nations to conduct military activities in EEZs without coastal state notice or consent. China insists that reconnaissance activities undertaken without prior notification and without permission of the coastal state violates Chinese domestic law and international law. US vessels and planes routinely

Navigate in the EEZ and China has intercepted several of them increasing therefore the risk of accidents: in April 2001 a collision of a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet near Hainan Island; in 2009 the USNS Impeccable and the USNS Victorious were intercepted by Chinese vessels.

Both countries have also sent strong messages to the counterparts: China declared the South Sea a vital and primary strategic area such Tibet and Taiwan and not negotiable; China has deployed new vessels and continues in its efforts to built new carriers and nuclear submarines. State media area often sending ultimatums and warnings, increasing nationalistic rhetoric. Similar situations can however be seen also in Vietnam and the Philippines. The US, on their side, have increased military joint operations with Philippines and South Korea, or started cooperation with India as well opening to more close economic ties with Vietnam, and at last the new Pacific Ocean strategy.

How can China and US ensure that the above disputes will not create a new cold war or a dangerous conflict between them?

China has also at stake huge economic and financial ties not only with the US, but also with the same countries is opposing in the South Sea. A conflict, although Chinese authority justify by nationalistic and military supremacy, will destroy economic relations and could isolate China affecting its market and growth. China, as the US, at the same time cannot stay idle in order to avoid giving mixed signals in the area thus encouraging action by more active countries such Taiwan, Philippines or even Vietnam.

China and US paradoxically have therefore the same aims and options to defuse the situation:

  1. Cooperation on strategic level: open a preferred channel of communication such the USSR-US had in the past. Although this will not avoid tensions, it will ensure communication between the parties therefore limiting the risk of miscalculating actions, and opening to major cooperation at least in other sectors such maritime law, piracy, economic trade, counter terrorism and security.
  2. The US should ratify the UNCLOS and work more closely with the countries involved to control their actions and avoid aggressions, whilst China should open to free trade in EEZ and abandon its militarisation.
  3. US could defuse Chinese aggressivity by increasing the military capability of the other parties. However, this could be counter productive if these countries are at the same time left free to abuse this assistance by pursuing nationalistic adventures. Boosting navies and defences systems, or sending the navy can send a strong signal to Beijing in not attempting any military action.

China on this side appears isolated ad cannot count on major allies to counter the others, but can benefit by diplomatic support from Russia as well as using its wild card: North Korea. China can also increase pressure on the US by assisting hostile countries in other areas where American interest are likely to be undermined: Iran, Pakistan or blocking US interest interest in economic stage or at the UN to mention some.

Obviously, the very and hopeful last solution would be that the US would use their weight and indirect interest to ensure a peaceful and negotiated resolution of the sovereignty disputes in the area.

The United States could push for submission of territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for settlement, or encourage an outside organization or mediator to intervene in resolving the dispute. However, these solutions can be undermined by Chinese opposition to foreign institutions intervening in what Beijing considers internal matter, a view shared for example by Russia and that can be blocked easily at the UN.

The final solution could be a negotiation with shared sovereignty or a Chinese one with an open sea policy for the others. The success of the above, that had already proposals in the past, could only succeed if not only China and US, but also all other major countries involved will put aside their nationalistic rhetoric and interest to work for a honest resolution of the issue. How likely is this to happen depends from the actions in the next few years but everything suggest we will assist to a long, tiring and exhausting dispute with small incidents and the risk of a major confrontation pending above us all.

Written by Matteo Figus

07/08/2012 at 13:46

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