Are the US and Iran headed for a military showdown before Trump leaves office?



MURTAJA LATEEF/EPA

Clive Williams, Australian National University

Tensions are running high in the Middle East in the waning days of the Trump administration.

Over the weekend, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, claimed Israeli agents were planning to attack US forces in Iraq to provide US President Donald Trump with a pretext for striking Iran.

Just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the US assassination of Iran’s charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards also warned his country would respond forcefully to any provocations.

Today, we have no problem, concern or apprehension toward encountering any powers. We will give our final words to our enemies on the battlefield.

Israeli military leaders are likewise preparing for potential Iranian retaliation over the November assassination of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh — an act Tehran blames on the Jewish state.

Both the US and Israel have reportedly deployed submarines to the Persian Gulf in recent days. (The USS Georgia is notably armed with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.) The US has also flown nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to the region in a show of force.

And in another worrying sign, the acting US defence secretary, Christopher Miller, announced over the weekend the US would not withdraw the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its strike group from the Middle East — a swift reversal from the Pentagon’s earlier decision to send the ship home.

The United States flew strategic bombers over the Persian Gulf twice in December in a show of force.
U.S. Air Force/AP

Israel’s priorities under a new US administration

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like nothing more than action by Iran that would draw in US forces before Trump leaves office this month and President-elect Joe Biden takes over. It would not only give him the opportunity to become a tough wartime leader, but also help to distract the media from his corruption charges.

Any American military response against Iran would also make it much more difficult for Biden to establish a working relationship with Iran and potentially resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

It’s likely in any case the Biden administration will have less interest in getting much involved in the Middle East — this is not high on the list of priorities for the incoming administration. However, a restoration of the Iranian nuclear agreement in return for the lifting of US sanctions would be welcomed by Washington’s European allies.




Read more:
Joe Biden’s approach to the Middle East will be very different from Trump’s, especially on Iran


This suggests Israel could be left to run its own agenda in the Middle East during the Biden administration.

Israel sees Iran as its major ongoing security threat because of its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian militants in Gaza.

One of Israel’s key strategic policies is also to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapon state. Israel is the only nuclear weapon power in the Middle East and is determined to keep it that way.

While Iran claims its nuclear program is only intended for peaceful purposes, Tehran probably believes realistically (like North Korea) that its national security can only be safeguarded by possession of a nuclear weapon.

In recent days, Tehran announced it would begin enriching uranium to 20% as quickly as possible, exceeding the limits agreed to in the 2015 nuclear deal.

This is a significant step and could prompt an Israeli strike on Iran’s underground Fordo nuclear facility. Jerusalem contemplated doing so nearly a decade ago when Iran previously began enriching uranium to 20%.

A satellite photo shows construction at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility.
Maxar Technologies/AP

How the Iran nuclear deal fell apart

Iran’s nuclear program began in the 1950s, ironically with US assistance as part of the “Atoms for Peace” program. Western cooperation continued until the 1979 Iranian Revolution toppled the pro-Western shah of Iran. International nuclear cooperation with Iran was then suspended, but the Iranian program resumed in the 1980s.

After years of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (known as the P5+1), together with the European Union.

The JCPOA tightly restricted Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, this breakthrough soon fell apart with Trump’s election.




Read more:
Iran’s nuclear program breaches limits for uranium enrichment: 4 key questions answered


In April 2018, Netanyahu revealed Iranian nuclear program documents obtained by Mossad, claiming Iran had been maintaining a covert weapons program. The following month, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and a re-imposition of American sanctions.

Iran initially said it would continue to abide by the nuclear deal, but after the Soleimani assassination last January, Tehran abandoned its commitments, including any restrictions on uranium enrichment.

Iranians burn US and Israel flags during a funeral ceremony for Qassem Soleimani last year.
Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA

Israel’s history of preventive strikes

Israel, meanwhile, has long sought to disrupt its adversaries’ nuclear programs through its “preventative strike” policy, also known as the “Begin Doctrine”.

In 1981, Israeli aircraft struck and destroyed Iraq’s atomic reactor at Osirak, believing it was being constructed for nuclear weapons purposes. And in 2007, Israeli aircraft struck the al-Kibar nuclear facility in Syria for the same reason.

Starting in 2007, Mossad also apparently conducted an assassination program to impede Iranian nuclear research. Between January 2010 and January 2012, Mossad is believed to have organised the assassinations of four nuclear scientists in Iran. Another scientist was wounded in an attempted killing.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the killings.

Iran is suspected to have responded to the assassinations with an unsuccessful bomb attack against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok in February 2012. The three Iranians convicted for that attack were the ones recently exchanged for the release of Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert from an Iranian prison.

Bomb suspect Mohammad Kharzei, one of the men released by Thailand in November in exchange for Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

The Mossad assassination program was reportedly suspended under pressure from the Obama administration to facilitate the Iran nuclear deal. But there seems little doubt the assassination of Fakhrizadeh was organised by Mossad as part of its ongoing efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear program.

Fakhrizadeh is believed to have been the driving force behind covert elements of Iran’s nuclear program for many decades.

The timing of his killing was perfect from an Israeli perspective. It put the Iranian regime under domestic pressure to retaliate. If it did, however, it risked a military strike by the truculent outgoing Trump administration.

It’s fortunate Moore-Gilbert was whisked out of Iran just before the killing, as there’s little likelihood Iran would have released a prisoner accused of spying for Israel (even if such charges were baseless) after such a blatant assassination had taken place in Iran.




Read more:
Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released. But will a prisoner swap with Australia encourage more hostage-taking by Iran?


What’s likely to happen next?

Where does all this leave us now? Much will depend on Iran’s response to what it sees (with some justification) as Israeli and US provocation.

The best outcome would be for no obvious Iranian retaliation or military action despite strong domestic pressure for the leadership to act forcefully. This would leave the door open for Biden to resume the nuclear deal, with US sanctions lifted under strict safeguards to ensure Iran is not able to maintain a covert weapons program.The Conversation

Clive Williams, Campus visitor, ANU Centre for Military and Security Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a troop drawdown in Afghanistan signals American weakness and could send Afghan allies into the Taliban’s arms



Afghan security forces gather near the site of an attack in Jalalabad in August 2020.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Brian Glyn Williams, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

President Donald Trump’s recent call to withdraw just over half of the 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has been condemned as an act that “would hurt our allies and delight, delight, the people who wish us harm” by members of his own party and key military leaders. The Nov. 17 announcement of troop reduction is part of a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban, but may not help deliver a lasting peace to the Afghan people.

The Taliban are a fanatical minority who seek to replace Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy with harsh Islamic law. They also have close ties to al-Qaida, offering refuge to other terrorist groups and supporting terrorist campaigns against neighboring Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

The country’s long-suffering people will be most affected by the pullout. Many of them rely on the U.S. military to keep the Taliban from moving out of the countryside – much of which they control, especially in the southeast – to take provincial capitals and the rest of the country.

According to a major Washington think tank, the withdrawal of U.S. troops could “potentially cripple” the Afghan National Army, which has seen 45,000 troops killed from 2015 to 2019. But based on my work among the Afghan tribes – whose leaders are powerful figures who provide crucial supports for the current government – an American drawdown is also likely to proclaim U.S. weakness to Afghanistan’s tribal leaders. Those important allies may switch sides to the Taliban en masse if they feel the U.S. is abandoning their country.

Afghan National Army soldiers march
New Afghan National Army soldiers march at their graduation ceremony in Kabul on Nov. 29, 2020.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

An embattled ally

I worked with Afghan National Army troops while working on a forward operating base for the U.S. Army’s Information Operations team in eastern Afghanistan. From that experience, I know they are brave and willing to make tremendous sacrifices – including of their lives – to defend their country. But they lack the essential training, equipment and other support that American troops provide.

When Afghan forces deploy on missions to repel insurgent offensives or retake villages, valleys or towns from the constantly probing and advancing enemy, they are transported by U.S. air crews in Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters. When they engage the Taliban in combat, U.S. Special Forces troops embedded with them fly hand-launched Raven drones that provide aerial views of the battlefield. Those U.S. troops also call in American artillery and air strikes, which are key to the Afghan National Army’s ability to succeed in battle against a determined foe.

These American “force multiplier” troops also provide their Afghan National Army allies with vital logistics support and, in a psychological sense, let their hard-fighting partners know that the American superpower has their back.

But the Army is not the only Afghan key factor the U.S. would weaken by pulling out.

Afghan fighters in 1980
Afghan tribal fighters, like these from 1980, have always been key to the country’s balance of power.
AP Photo

The tribes are key

The strategic southeast of Afghanistan that is home to the Taliban is dominated largely by ethnic Pashtun tribes, which is very different from the postmodern melting-pot societies familiar to those in the U.S. and Europe. These 60 tribes, or clans, have for centuries maintained – and shifted – the country’s balance of military and political power. They are always calculating which of the rival factions or warring parties is in the strongest position and seeking to join that side.

When the Soviets withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of war supporting the country’s communist government, tribes who had remained neutral joined the advancing mujahedeen Islamist rebels and eventually defeated the remaining government forces.

I was working in Afghanistan in 2007, the year that the George W. Bush administration kept U.S. forces in Afghanistan roughly constant around 20,000 – but sent a far larger force to Iraq. The shift in U.S. priority pulled vital resources like drones, Special Forces troops, artillery, vehicles with additional armor protection, and combat planes and helicopters out of Afghanistan.

As the Pentagon’s focus shifted to Iraq, the tribes saw the U.S. as only weakly committed to winning the Afghan conflict. Those that had allied with the previously powerful Americans and Afghan government defected to a resurgent Taliban in order to be on the winning side.

The resulting Taliban advance on the Pashtun tribal area saw the insurgents take much of the country’s second-largest city, destroy U.S.-built girls’ schools and take the lives of Afghans who had worked with Americans. The Talibans’ offensive was averted only by President Obama’s 2009-2012 troop surge, which vastly increased the number of U.S. troops in the country, to a peak of 100,000.

That commitment conveyed a message of strength to the tribes, who came back to the government’s side in key strategic areas and prevented the Taliban conquest of the southeast. As U.S. and NATO troops bolstered the Afghan National Army, vast swaths of territory in the Pashtun belt and its second largest city of Kandahar were wrested from the Taliban, who lost tens of thousands of fighters.

Afghan troops continue to battle a Taliban-led insurgency
Afghan troops continue to battle a Taliban-led insurgency.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The effects of Pentagon disengagement

For the past several years, a tentative stalemate has prevailed. Many tribes are clearly watching for signs of weakness from either the Taliban or the Americans. They will interpret any retreat or sign of weak commitment from one side as a signal to join the other side.

The U.S. has gradually over the years reduced its troop numbers, which has hurt the country’s reputation among the tribes. But so far, American forces are still numerous enough to deploy alongside Afghan troops to call in supporting artillery and air strikes – demonstrating enough power to keep the tribes tentatively on the U.S. side.

[Get our most insightful politics and election stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s Politics Weekly.]

The upcoming troop drawdown would end most, if not all, of that capacity, leaving the Afghan National Army without crucial reinforcements. The Taliban will likely claim a huge tactical victory on the battlefield, and an equally important victory in the battle of perceptions. The tribes will see U.S. weakness, and may shift their support to the Taliban out of a sense of self-preservation.

The remaining number of just 2,000 U.S. troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan would no longer be able to support the Afghan National Army – and will most likely be hard-pressed just to protect themselves.The Conversation

Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drums of war were beating for almost two years. Why Ethiopia’s conflict was avoidable



Members of the Amhara militia ride in the back of a pick up truck, in Mai Kadra, Ethiopia, on November 21, 2020. Amharas and Tigrayans were uneasy neighbours before the current fighting.
Photo by Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

Yonatan T. Fessha, University of the Western Cape

I grew up in Ethiopia during the days of the military government. For years before its overthrow in 1991, the national army was locked in a protracted war against rebel movements in the north. It was common in those days to hear state media reporting the capture or recapture of towns from rebel forces. The parading of prisoners of war made daily headlines.

However, you would hear a completely different story if you had the courage to tune in to rebel broadcasts, which were banned, or foreign radio. I remember my father making sure that the door and windows of our house were securely closed before tuning into Voice of America Amharic.

Thirty years later, Ethiopians faced another bout of internal armed conflict in the north and found themselves again glued to radio and television not to miss the news about advancing and retreating armed forces. And it’s just as hard to verify reports since telephone and internet links to Tigray have been cut and access tightly controlled since the fighting began on November.

The federal government launched a military offensive against the regional government of the state of Tigray in retaliation for its attack on the Northern Command of the federal army stationed in the capital of the state government. Since then, the conflict has escalated markedly.

While the Ethiopian federal government controls the federal police and the national army, the Constitution allows each of the country’s 10 states to deploy its own police force to enforce their laws. In addition, some of the states have heavily armed special forces.

Though the conflict appeared to have begun abruptly, the drums of war were beating for almost two years. The seeds of the current conflict were sown even earlier when public unrest erupted against the government, in power for almost 27 years, five years ago .

The protests eventually led to political realignment within the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnic based parties. The end result was the dislodging of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front as the dominant member of the coalition and the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister in April 2018.

Outwardly, the political configurations seemed to have taken place smoothly. But it did not take long before cracks within the ruling party started to emerge. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, whose leaders retreated to their stronghold state of Tigray, complained of ethnic marginalisation and economic sabotage.

Had the national government and Tigray state government attempted to engage in intergovernmental dialogue, things might have turned out differently.

Elections and COVID-19

On March 31, Ethiopia’s National Electoral Board announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, national elections would not be held as scheduled. The decision gave rise to a constitutional conundrum. The Constitution, it appears, has no definitive answer regarding the fate of an incumbent whose term comes to an end before an election is held in the country.

Therefore, the national parliament sought advice from the House of Federation. This second chamber of the Ethiopian federal parliament ruled in favour of extending the term of the office of the incumbent administration until the next elections are held.

But not everyone supported the decision of the government to seek guidance from the House of Federation. Nor with the decision that was rendered by the House. The state government of Tigray and a number of other opposition parties deemed the move as illegitimate control of power. They called for a national dialogue that should lead to the establishment of a transitional government.

Tigray took its opposition further by establishing its own electoral board and holding an election. After carrying out its election, Tigray declared the federal government illegitimate and withdrew its members of the federal parliament.

Some aspects of the decision of the House are arguably problematic. These include its decision to extend the term of office of state councils and executives. Unlike other federal constitutions, the Ethiopian constitution is largely silent about the organisation and functioning of state governments. That is left to state constitutions. This suggests that any decision regarding state governments and state parliaments must be based primarily on state constitutions.

Yet, irrespective of the merits of the decision, the House body has the power to interpret the constitution and must be respected as such. For this reason, Tigray attack on the federal government as illegitimate was constitutionally problematic. The bodies that have the ultimate power to interpret the constitution have allowed the federal government to stay in power until the next elections are held.

The intergovernmental tension was further exacerbated when the House of Federation suspended the transfer of funds to Tigray state government. It elected to work directly with local governments in Tigray, bypassing the state government. Tigray reacted by making public its intention to withhold all federal taxes collected in the state.

One would have hoped that Addis Ababa would first see out the full implementation of the use of the power of the purse to resolve the tension. But instead the country was plunged into a military conflict to resolve intergovernmental disputes.

Federal intervention

The Constitution allows the federal government to intervene in state governments. This ranges from giving directives on matters that are normally left to state government to removing a state government and assuming its responsibilities.

Although a constitutionally valid option – and more tempting once Tigray attacked the Northern Command – it was a politically unwise move that is fraught with disastrous consequences. A federal intervention in Ethiopia is not what we see in other federal countries, given that some of the state governments command a heavily armed force in the form of a special police force.

The state of Tigray is reported to have 250,000 strong well-armed militia and special force. A federal intervention that happens under this context unavoidably becomes an armed conflict, if not a civil war.

That is why the claim of the current administration that it is pursuing a law enforcement operation falls flat in the face of reports of the rocket missiles and air bombardments dominating the news about the conflict.

Dialogue

The actions and reactions of both governments reveal the limits of the law and violence to dampen intergovernmental tensions. What is striking (and tragically so) is that there has not been a single report of both governments sitting behind closed doors and engaging in intergovernmental dialogue. This is despite a number of attempts by a group of elders.

Instead, matters were allowed to fester through demonstrations, press releases and wars of words that only served to deepen the rift among communities.

The state government of Tigray expressed its willingness to engage in a dialogue. But, it said it was not interested in a bilateral dialogue that aimed at resolving the conflict between the two governments. It insisted that the dialogue should include all opposition parties and other stakeholders.

It was expected that Abiy could only see this as a call to gang up against his administration and oust him from office, making the demand a non-starter. On the other hand, his government has rejected efforts by international powers to halt the deadly fighting as interference in internal matters. This is an odd argument coming from a prime minister eager to play peacemaker in neighbouring countries.

Perhaps, what was – and still is – needed is a negotiation that aims at de-escalating the conflict between the two governments. The rest can wait for another day. The country cannot afford the continuation of the conflict that has already cost thousands of lives, created enabling environment for massive human rights violations, further deepened communal divisions and made the continued existence of the country more precarious than ever.

A version of this article was first published in Verfassungsblog.The Conversation

Yonatan T. Fessha, Professor, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Conflict between Tigray and Eritrea — the long standing faultline in Ethiopian politics



An Ethiopan soldier mans a position near Zala Anbesa in the northern Tigray region of the country, about 1,6 kilometres from the Eritrean border.
Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Richard Reid, University of Oxford

The missile attack by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Eritrea in mid-November transformed an internal Ethiopian crisis into a transnational one. In the midst of escalating internal conflict between Ethiopia’s northernmost province, Tigray, and the federal government, it was a stark reminder of a historical rivalry that continues to shape and reshape Ethiopia.

The rivalry between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the movement which has governed Eritrea in all but name for the past 30 years – the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front – goes back several decades.

The histories of Eritrea and Ethiopia have long been closely intertwined. This is especially true of Tigray and central Eritrea. These territories occupy the central massif of the Horn of Africa. Tigrinya-speakers are the predominant ethnic group in both Tigray and in the adjacent Eritrean highlands.

The enmity between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front dates to the mid-1970s, when the Tigrayan front was founded in the midst of political turmoil in Ethiopia. The authoritarian Marxist regime – known as the Derg (Amharic for ‘committee’) – inflicted violence upon millions of its own citizens. It was soon confronted with a range of armed insurgencies and socio-political movements. These included Tigray and Eritrea, where the resistance was most ferocious.

The Tigrayan front was at first close to the Eritrean front, which had been founded in 1970 to fight for independence from Ethiopia. Indeed, the Eritreans helped train some of the first Tigrayan recruits in 1975-6, in their shared struggle against Ethiopian government forces for social revolution and the right to self-determination.

But in the midst of the war against the Derg regime, the relationship quickly soured over ethnic and national identity. There were also differences over the demarcation of borders, military tactics and ideology. The Tigrayan front eventually recognised the Eritreans’ right to self-determination, if grudgingly, and resolved to fight for the liberation of all Ethiopian peoples from the tyranny of the Derg regime.

Each achieved seminal victories in the late 1980s. Together the Tigrayan-led Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and the Eritrean front overthrew the Derg in May 1991. The Tigrayan-led front formed government in Addis Ababa while the Eritrean front liberated Eritrea which became an independent state.

But this was just the start of a new phase of a deep-rooted rivalry. This continued between the governments until the recent entry of prime minister Abiy Ahmed.

If there’s any lesson to be learnt from years of military and political manoeuvrings, it is that conflict in Tigray is unavoidably a matter of intense interest to the Eritrean leadership. And Abiy would do well to remember that conflict between Eritrea and Tigray has long represented a destabilising fault line for Ethiopia as well as for the wider region.

Reconciliation and new beginnings

In the early 1990s, there was much talk of reconciliation and new beginnings between Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea. The two governments signed a range of agreements on economic cooperation, defence and citizenship. It seemed as though the enmity of the liberation war was behind them.

Meles declared as much at the 1993 Eritrean independence celebrations, at which he was a notable guest.

But deep-rooted tensions soon resurfaced. In the course of 1997, unresolved border disputes were exacerbated by Eritrea’s introduction of a new currency. This had been anticipated in a 1993 economic agreement. But in the event Tigrayan traders often refused to recognise it, and it caused a collapse in commerce.

Full-scale war erupted over the contested border hamlet of Badme in May 1998. The fighting swiftly spread to other stretches of the shared, 1,000 km long frontier. Air strikes were launched on both sides.

It was quickly clear, too, that this was only superficially about borders. It was more substantively about regional power and long standing antagonisms that ran along ethnic lines.

The Eritrean government’s indignant anti-Tigray front rhetoric had its echo in the popular contempt for so-called Agame, the term Eritreans used for Tigrayan migrant labourers.

For the Tigray front, the Eritrean front was the clearest expression of perceived Eritrean arrogance.

As for Isaias himself, regarded as a crazed warlord who had led Eritrea down a path which defied economic and political logic, it was hubris personified.

Ethiopia deported tens of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean descent.

Ethiopia’s decisive final offensive in May 2000 forced the Eritrean army to fall back deep into their own territory. Although the Ethiopians were halted, and a ceasefire put in place after bitter fighting on a number of fronts, Eritrea had been devastated by the conflict.

The Algiers Agreement of December 2000 was followed by years of standoff, occasional skirmishes, and the periodic exchange of insults.

During this period Ethiopia consolidated its position as a dominant power in the region. And Meles as one of the continent’s representatives on the global stage.

For its part Eritrea retreated into a militaristic, authoritarian solipsism. Its domestic policy centred on open-ended national service for the young. Its foreign policy was largely concerned with undermining the Ethiopian government across the region. This was most obvious in Somalia, where its alleged support for al-Shabaab led to the imposition of sanctions on Asmara.

The ‘no war-no peace’ scenario continued even after Meles’s sudden death in 2012. The situation only began to shift with the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn against a backdrop of mounting protest across Ethiopia, especially among the Oromo and the Amhara, and the rise to power of Abiy.

What followed was the effective overthrow of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front which had been the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition since 1991.

This provided Isaias with a clear incentive to respond to Abiy’s overtures.

Tigray’s loss, Eritrea’s gain

A peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, was signed in July 2018 by Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki. It formally ended their 1998-2000 war. It also sealed the marginalisation of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Many in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front were unenthusiastic about allowing Isaias in from the cold.

Since the 1998-2000 war, in large part thanks to the astute manoeuvres of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Eritrea had been exactly where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front wanted it: an isolated pariah state with little diplomatic clout. Indeed, it is unlikely that Isaias would have been as receptive to the deal had it not involved the further sidelining of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, something which Abiy presumably understood.

Isaias had eschewed the possibility of talks with Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. But Abiy was a different matter. A political reformer, and a member of the largest but long-subjugated ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, he was determined to end the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s domination of Ethiopian politics.

This was effectively achieved in December 2019 when he abolished the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front and replaced it with the Prosperity Party.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front declined to join with the visible results of the current conflict.




Read more:
Residual anger driven by the politics of power has boiled over into conflict in Ethiopia


Every effort to engage with the Tigrayan leadership – including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – in pursuit of a peaceful resolution must also mean keeping Eritrea out of the conflict.

Unless Isaias is willing to play a constructive role – he does not have a good track record anywhere in the region in this regard – he must be kept at arm’s length, not least to protect the 2018 peace agreement itself.The Conversation

Richard Reid, Professor of African History, St Cross College, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Australian commanders need to be held responsible for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Paul Taucher, Murdoch University and Dean Aszkielowicz, Murdoch University

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made clear he expects senior Australian officers to face some degree of accountability for any crimes allegedly committed by special forces in Afghanistan.

So far, however, others have been more circumspect. While Justice Paul Brereton’s shocking report last month called for 19 Australian soldiers to be referred to the federal police to be prosecuted for possible crimes, it stopped short of recommending commanding officers be held responsible.

Lieutenant-General Rick Burr, the head of the Army, cut short a news conference when asked whether he should resign in the wake of the scandal last week, and General Angus Campbell, the Defence Force chief, said commanding officers would be dealt with on a “case-by-case basis”.

Burr says military leaders are ‘holding ourselves to account’ over the allegations raised in the Brereton report.
Lukas Coch/AAP

The Defence Force has foreshadowed there will likely be administrative punishment for some officers, including possible demotions, stripping of medals or removal from service.

This is a start. However, Campbell and the rest of the Defence Force leadership need to begin a serious discussion about the accountability and responsibility of commanding officers in the military as they move forward from the Brereton report.




Read more:
Allegations of murder and ‘blooding’ in Brereton report now face many obstacles to prosecution


How commanding officers were dealt with in the past

This not the first time the Australian military has dealt with this complex moral and legal question.

After the second world war, Australia, the US, UK and other allies tried suspected Japanese war criminals under international law. These trials saw the first use of command responsibility.

This doctrine holds commanding officers responsible for crimes that are committed by their subordinates during wartime, when the commanding officers knew, or should have known, that they occurred. These crimes can include massacres, mistreatment of prisoners of war and murder.

Many Japanese officers were sentenced to death during the trials because they failed to prevent, halt or punish the crimes committed by their soldiers, even when they did not explicitly know the crimes were occurring. Other Japanese officers were more fortunate and received prison terms.

The court martial convened in Darwin in 1946 to try Japanese prisoners of war charged with war crimes.
Australian War Memorial

Why accountability matters

The claim in the Brereton report that Australian officers were not in a position to know — and therefore to act — on alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan has, in some eyes, absolved them of responsibility.

However, there seems to be an acknowledgement within defence circles that further actions could have, and perhaps should have, been taken by Australian commanders to address cultural issues within the SAS, and to impose greater scrutiny on units that were on high-intensity combat rotations.




Read more:
Changing the culture of our SAS forces is no easy fix. Instead, we need to face the true costs of war


Command responsibility is a difficult legal doctrine to grapple with. At the core, this is because officers could be held legally responsible for criminal acts they did not encourage, order or directly take part in under both Commonwealth military law and international laws.

Holding an individual criminally responsible for the actions of others goes against the personal responsibility that our criminal justice system is largely based on.

Nonetheless, it is important for several reasons that the Australian military holds its officers responsible for their units and subordinates.

For one, disciplining senior officers is critical for any attempt to reorganise and reform the Australian special forces following the explosive allegations put forth in the Brereton report.

The report revealed that some officers enabled a culture of heavy drinking, poor discipline and the pursuit of personal glory within the special forces. It is therefore critical these officers are removed from their positions to rebuild an effective, well-disciplined and respected special forces group.

Pursuing commanding officers is also important for the soldiers that served on the ground. The report has raised serious questions about how elite forces were pushed to their breaking point. Australia needs to know what role commanders had in that.

Of course, turning the focus on the moral responsibility of senior officers is not intended to absolve the alleged crimes committed by individuals. The point is simply that the military needs to demonstrate to the public, as well as to past and current members of the armed services, that senior officers cannot completely avoid responsibility for what happened.

Australia’s international reputation is at stake

Investigating senior officers, and where appropriate, taking action against them, is also an important part of restoring the reputation and credibility of the Australian military abroad.

The Australian Army has long been a respected member of international coalitions. It has built a reputation for working effectively with allies and partners, and for taking international law seriously.

It now faces an international scandal, and its reputation is at stake.

This is particularly the case in nations like Afghanistan, where the Australian military was instrumental in combating often brutal forces that held little regard for human rights. Counter-insurgency operations need to win the hearts and minds of the local population. For the Australian military to rebuild its reputation in countries where it operates, it needs to be able to hold itself accountable for its mistakes.

If we can’t do this, our position in the international rules-based system can be questioned, as it already has been. A failure to hold officers responsible also de-legitimises Australia’s questioning of foreign governments on human rights abuses, as well as the government’s calls for justice in other international crimes.




Read more:
It’s time for Australia’s SAS to stop its culture of cover-up and take accountability for possible war crimes


The Conversation


Paul Taucher, PhD Candidate in History, Murdoch University and Dean Aszkielowicz, Lecturer, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘War in space’ would be a catastrophe. A return to rules-based cooperation is the only way to keep space peaceful



SpaceX

Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University; David Kuan-Wei Chen, McGill University, and Ram S. Jakhu, McGill University

In 2019, US President Donald Trump declared “space is the new war-fighting domain”. This followed the creation of the US Space Force and a commitment to “American dominance” in outer space.

Other space-faring nations, and those who fear the acceleration of an arms race in space, were greatly concerned. At the latest meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, states noted with alarm that “preventing conflicts in outer space and preserving outer space for peaceful purposes” is more necessary than ever.

The election of Joe Biden as the next US president and Kamala Harris as vice-president suggests there is cause for hope. The future of space may look more like the recent launch of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station.

Onboard were US and Japanese astronauts, who joined Russian and US crew already living aboard the ISS. As the Falcon 9 rocket soared into space, the collaborative, cooperative and commercial nature of space was once again clear for all to see.




Read more:
The US-Russian Space Station mission is a study in cooperation


Cooperation, not confrontation

The incoming Biden-Harris administration appears more interested in international cooperation, and much more cognisant of the challenges of climate change, pandemics and other global issues. A carefully calibrated space policy can do much to address “terrestrial” challenges, while still allowing for many positive space activities.

Since 1967, human activity in space has been guided by the universally accepted principles embedded in the Outer Space Treaty. This has ensured we have had no military conflict in space, and required the exploration and use of space “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries”.

Any alternative vision of the future of space is dreadful to consider. Rhetoric about the inevitability of “war in space” makes such conflict more likely and risks a “tragedy of the commons” in space.




Read more:
The US plan for a Space Force risks escalating a ‘space arms race’


Any space war would have no clear winner. In a complex, globally shared arena such as space, it is important that states abide by accepted rules and established practices.

The US has great scientific and technological advantages and a robust and competitive commercial space sector. Instead of seeking dominance, it can better serve the world (and itself) by focusing its leadership on harnessing space for the benefit of all humankind.

In a promising sign, Biden and Harris’s NASA review team is composed of an outstanding group of space scientists as well as a former astronaut.

The current administration re-established the National Space Council, which is chaired by the vice president, and this has reinvigorated American investment and leadership in space exploration. This includes an ambitious plan to return to the Moon under the terms of the Artemis Accords.

Astronaut Soichi Noguchi is greeted by astronaut Kate Rubins as he enters the International Space Station from the vestibule between the SpaceX Dragon capsule and the ISS.
NASA

Respect the rules

To ensure the fragile and shared domain of outer space does not become an arena for conflict, the rules that apply to any military uses of space need to be understood, respected and further developed. Failure to do so could lead to devastation, disruption and impact on civilian lives, particularly in the largest and most powerful countries like the US, whose economies and societies are heavily dependent on space infrastructure. Their access to space has given them the greatest competitive advantage, but they are therefore the most vulnerable if that access is compromised.

Space is a “congested, contested and competitive” area where scientific, commercial and economic interests converge, as well as military and national security concerns. In this sense space is like the radio frequency spectrum, which has been successfully regulated and managed for decades under international rules adopted through the International Telecommunication Union.

But space is also much more. As the recent Crew-1 mission demonstrated, there are significant benefits when nations come together and cooperate. Enlightened leadership, guided by commonly agreed laws and practices and a recognition that we share outer space as custodians for future generations, is the only realistic way forward.The Conversation

Steven Freeland, Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University; David Kuan-Wei Chen, Executive Director, Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, McGill University, and Ram S. Jakhu, Director, Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nagorno-Karabakh: why Iran is trying to remain neutral over the conflict on its doorstep


Marzieh Kouhi-Esfahani, Durham University

Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified in early October over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus at the centre of a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades.

The South Caucasus is sandwiched between Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Out of these three regional powers, Turkey’s vocal and military support for Azerbaijan has bolstered Baku’s confidence to refuse mediation in the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow – which has historically been an important mediator in this conflict – is also committed to protect Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional security alliance.

Iran, however, has adopted an official neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. It’s doing the same today, with Iranian officials stating they are working on a peace plan.




Read more:
Nagorno-Karabakh: are Armenia and Azerbaijan sliding towards all-out war?


Mediation efforts

The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, resulting in Azerbaijan losing 20% of its territory to Armenia.

Tehran made an extensive effort to broker a ceasefire in 1992, only to see it violated by the Armenian militia within hours, discrediting Iran’s role as a mediator.

Although another ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1994, numerous rounds of negotiations, as well as regional and international mediation, most notably by the OSCE Minsk group, have not led to peace – or even a partial resolution of the dispute. While conflict has repeatedly flared up along the front line since then, for example in 2016, the current escalation, which began on September 27, is by far the most serious.

Iran is in no real position to mediate now, particularly given its own turbulent relationship with Baku, as well as international sensitivity over Iran’s increased regional influence. The only reason Iran repeats its offer of mediation is to confirm to Armenia and Azerbaijan – and their respective ethnic minorities and supporters inside Iran – that Tehran remains neutral. Such neutrality is important for Iran’s own domestic stability.

Historic ties

Until the early 19th century, Georgia, Armenia and the territories of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known then as Arran) were under Persian control. Iran then lost these territories to Russia following its defeats in two wars.

The 1918 collapse of Russia’s Tsarist empire and the weakening of Moscow’s hold on Arran provided the opportunity for nationalist parties. Supported by the Ottoman Empire, they created the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1920.

While, prior to 1918, there had been no political entity on the north of the Aras river with the name Azerbaijan, the people of Arran shared Turkic ethnicity and language with those in the north-western provinces of Iran, historically called Eastern and Western Azarbaijan.

This makes today’s 9 million population of Azerbaijan brethren of 16% of Iran’s population – another 20 million people. Iran is also home to more than 100,000 highly respected and well-integrated Armenians. They have strong and at times useful connections to the global Armenian diaspora, which has influential lobbies in western countries, especially the US.

With such an ethnic mix, any official support by Tehran for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict could deepen the social faultlines to the point of conflict. It would also add to the various social dilemmas that the Iranian state is already facing, arising from economic hardship caused by US sanctions, rampant corruption and mismanagement, as well as public dissatisfaction with the state’s repressive policies.

At a time when social cohesion is in tatters, taking sides could easily result in widening ethnic divisions that could put Iran’s political and territorial integrity at risk.

Wary of Baku

As I have explained in my own research, with a shared Shia religion and civilisational background, Iran could have been Azerbaijan’s natural ally – especially as Armenia is a non-Muslim country. But Azerbaijan’s constant expansionist approach towards Iranian territories since its independence makes such an alliance highly unlikely, no matter who rules Iran.

Azerbaijan has made significant investments
in promoting separatist ideas among Turkic Iranians and maintained an appetite for integrating the Iranian provinces of Eastern and Western Azarbaijan into the republic. This has been one of the main reasons why Iran’s ruling Shia theocracy is reluctant to take Azerbaijan’s side, despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is also Shia.

Baku’s partnerships with the US and Israel, as well as its secular government with an adamant resistance to any influence from Iran, also increase the Islamic Republic’s hesitance to support Azerbaijan.

Armenia, on the other hand, has not demonstrated any expansionist policies towards Iranian territories. Nor has it developed relations with Iran’s nemeses – the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to a degree that undermines its cordial relations with Tehran. Still, it would be counter-intuitive for Iran’s Shia theocracy to overtly ally with a Christian republic against another Shia majority country.

This is why the best option for protecting Iran’s security and stability is for Tehran to maintain its neutral stance while supporting international initiatives to resolve the conflict.The Conversation

Marzieh Kouhi-Esfahani, Teaching Fellow, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shots fired in the Himalayas: a dangerous development in the China-India border standoff



Mukhtar Khan/AP

Stephen Peter Westcott, Murdoch University

In the midst of all the stories about China’s oppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and its expulsion of foreign journalists, a recent clash on its border with India may pose the greater threat to Asian security.

For the first time in 45 years, shots were fired this week.

Confrontation on the roof of the world

During the evening of September 7, Chinese and Indian troops confronted each other along their undefined, de facto border, known as the “Line of Actual Control” (LAC).

This in itself was not unusual. The two sides have been locked in several tense standoffs along the LAC since May.

What makes this confrontation stand out is it involved the first known use of firearms on the border in almost half a century.

What happened?

China and India have accused each other of provoking this confrontation, which occurred in the Rezang-La heights area, just south of Pangong Lake.

According to Indian reports, there were between 30 and 40 Chinese troops involved. Photographs published in Indian media show Chinese soldiers armed with crude Guandao-style polearms, as well as standard issue rifles.

It is unclear how many Indian troops were involved or how they were equipped.

Pangong Lake near the India-China border
Border tensions have been building for months between India and China.
Manish Swarup/AP

China claims Indian troops crossed the LAC and “blatantly fired shots” when Chinese border troops moved to deter them. India, has strenuously denied this, saying Chinese soldiers crossed the LAC and were blocked by an Indian forward position, who they then tried to intimidate by firing “a few rounds in the air”.

No troops have been reported injured or killed.

Regardless of which side actually fired the shots, the tactic did not work. Both Chinese and Indian soldiers remain in a stand-off, reportedly only 200 metres apart.

Unravelling rules of engagement

This recent exchange represents a troubling escalation between the two countries.
It directly contravenes the rules and norms painstakingly established by China and India to govern behaviour on the border.

Negotiations on the disputed border have always been tough for China and India. The two sides took nearly 12 years of tentative negotiations before signing their first treaty in 1993, in which they agreed to “maintain peace and tranquillity” along the LAC.




Read more:
In Kashmir, military lockdown and pandemic combined are one giant deadly threat


Subsequent agreements were reached after negotiations in 1996, 2005 and 2013. These govern military conduct on the border and guidelines for a diplomatic resolution.

The prohibition against the use of weapons along the LAC was first laid out in the 1996 agreement.

Neither side shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns and explosives within two kilometres from the Line of Actual Control.

Until this week, China and India have upheld this agreement, even when previous border patrol confrontations became heated.

However, both sides have been pushing the limits of what the other will tolerate and have trying to exploit loopholes and technicalities for several years now.

Border confrontations have gradually escalated from farcical shoving matches to fully-fledged brawls and stone flinging, which caused injuries in 2017.




Read more:
China and India’s deadly Himalayan clash is a big test for Modi. And a big concern for the world


This year has seen both sides up the ante, with the introduction of makeshift clubs in a lethal melee at the Galwan Valley in June and China now seemingly equipping some border patrols with polearms.

Earlier this month, Indian media reported India was using new rules of engagement. This change allows its border troops to use whatever means are available for “tactical signalling” against the Chinese.

A dangerous deadlock

As two of the world’s largest militaries – and two nuclear-armed countries – even a limited border war between China and India would be devastating for regional peace and stability. It would likely ruin what little cooperation there is left and potentially pull in third parties, such as Pakistan or the United States.

Indian leader Narendra Modi points finger during conversation with China's Xi Jinping.
War between India and China would be devastating.
Manish Swarup/AP

It is clear from the flurry of diplomatic activity between China and India over the past months that they feel the gravity of their situation.

But despite both sides proclaiming they seek a peaceful resolution to the ongoing standoffs, a culture of mistrust continues to poison discussions.

China and India’s foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Moscow on Thursday to discuss the border standoff in person for the first time since the crisis began.




Read more:
China’s leaders are strong and emboldened. It’s wrong to see them as weak and insecure


Both countries will now need to engage in some masterful and innovative diplomatic work to find a way to rejuvenate their diplomacy.

And find a mutually face-saving way to disengage before the standoff escalates out of control.The Conversation

Stephen Peter Westcott, Post-doc research fellow, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s one thing to build war fighting capability, it’s another to build industrial capability



Shutterstock

Graeme Dunk, Australian National University

Amid fanfare last week at the start of the new financial year the government promised to invest A$270 billion over a decade to upgrade the defence force.

It said a side benefit would be a stronger local defence industry and “more high-tech Australian jobs”.

The prime minister’s statement hastened to add that it was already strong

Australia’s defence industry is growing with over 4,000 businesses employing approximately 30,000 staff. An additional 11,000 Australian companies directly benefit from Defence investment and, when further downstream suppliers are included, the benefits flow to approximately 70,000 workers.

But the Australian part of Australia’s defence industry is small and getting smaller.

My analysis of contracts listed on the government’s Austender website shows that while the proportion of defence department contracts awarded to Australian operated firms is usually well above 60%, the proportion awarded to firms that are both Australian operated and owned is much lower, presently 11%.



Austender, authors calculations

It means that while Australians are being employed on defence department projects, the use of Australian firms that develop and own intellectual property is at a near-record low.

Other analysis of the same data shows that the value of the contracts awarded to Australian owned companies is increasingly lower than for foreign owned companies.

This is backed up by the annual Australian Defence Magazine survey of the top 40 defence contractors.

Despite the fact that in the most recent survey two of the biggest contractors declined to take part – the French-owned Naval Group Australia, which has the contract for the Future Submarine program, and the US-owned Raytheon – it has the advantage of including subcontracting relationships not shown in Austender.

Playing second fiddle matters

The survey finds that while the amount of work done by Australian-controlled companies has held up since 2015, it has been increasingly subcontracted to foreign-owned prime contractors.

This subordinate role has important implications for the health of Australia’s industry and national resilience.

For industry it means that Australia is denied the full economic benefits that would come from designing and running projects and owning the intellectual property.

For national resilience it increases Australia’s exposure to events outside its control.




Read more:
Scott Morrison pivots Australian Defence Force to meet more threatening regional outlook


If foreign-controlled firms withdraw, withhold or otherwise redirect assistance (or if they are directed to do so by foreign governments) it is harder for Australia’s industry to pick up the slack.

The supply chain interruptions caused by COVID-19 have highlighted these vulnerabilities.

Brent Clark, the national chief executive of the Australian Industry and Defence Network says he was “shocked to learn how many of our supplies are sourced from overseas and how quickly those supplies became hard to access as soon as overseas countries required them for their own purposes”.

He says the industry is not asking for a free ride, but it does want to be able to compete for contracts in a fair and equitable manner.




Read more:
Defence update: in an increasingly dangerous neighbourhood, Australia needs a stronger security system


This isn’t to suggest Australia needs to it do all. Complete self-sufficiency in defence is unrealistic.

But it would deepen Australia’s war fighting capability if Australian firms had the ability to to supply and maintain much of the essential equipment we will need to use.

And it would strengthen our ability to deal with other crises. COVID-19 has shown that industrial capability and resilience are intrinsically linked.

The Government’s rhetoric and policies support home-grown growth. All that is needed now is commitment backed up by accountability.


Louisa Minney, defence consultant, business analyst and company director, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Graeme Dunk, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China and India’s deadly Himalayan clash is a big test for Modi. And a big concern for the world.



Michael Kappeler DPA/AAP

Ian Hall, Griffith University

Sometime on Monday, an Indian army patrol skirmished with Chinese troops in the Galwan River Valley, high in the Himalayas.

According to reports, no guns were involved, but the fight left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead from injuries caused by stones, makeshift clubs, and falls down the steep cliffs of the valley.

Although standoffs and even fistfights between Chinese and Indian troops have been relatively common in recent years, there have been no deaths on the disputed border for decades.




Read more:
ScoMosas over Zoom: what to expect from Scott Morrison’s virtual summit with India’s Narendra Modi


Such confrontations are usually defused by talks between commanders on the ground, leading to choreographed disengagements.

In this case, it appears those processes have failed, and at a moment when relations between China and India – both nuclear armed states – are already tense.

Origins of the dispute

When India gained its independence in 1947, it inherited unsettled frontiers with several neighbours.

That situation was exacerbated by Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s decision to seize control of Tibet – which up to that point had been a buffer state – three years later.

More than a decade of failed negotiations to agree a border followed, to the frustration of all. Then, in October 1962, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mao ordered a sudden attack on Indian forces.

China decisively won this short “pedagogic war” – designed to teach New Delhi a lesson. It gained ground from India, but then withdrew its forces, bringing them back close to their starting positions.

Since then, a “Line of Actual Control” (LAC) has, in effect, constituted the frontier.

Several more fruitless rounds of talks to settle an official border have taken place. And there have been several military standoffs, including one in 1975 that left four Indian soldiers dead.

Mounting tensions and the threat of war

The Galwan River Valley incident is by far the worst to occur on the LAC for some time. It also comes against a backdrop of several years of deteriorating relations between China and India, dating from the rise to power of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Since 2013, New Delhi has reported a series of incursions by Chinese troops into what it regards at its territory.




Read more:
China-India border dispute a grim sign for stability in Asia


The visits of both Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May 2013, and Xi in September 2014, were overshadowed by such incidents.

And in mid-2017, there was a ten-week standoff between Chinese and Indian troops in Bhutan, in a disputed area called Doklam (or Donglang).

During that crisis, Beijing openly warned that if New Delhi did not pull back, it might go to war.

Disagreement over other issues

At the same time, China and India have quarrelled and competed over a number of other issues.

New Delhi has emerged as a vocal critic of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and has tried to dissuade other states in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region from signing on to BRI projects.

China and India disagree over more than their borders.
Harish Tyagi EPA/AAP

India has complained about China’s trade practices, pointing to a growing trade deficit with its northern neighbour, as well as Beijing’s alleged attempts to influence the policies of smaller states such as Nepal.

Meanwhile, India has strengthened security ties with the United States, Japan and Australia among others – to Beijing’s obvious irritation.

The biggest test yet

There can be little doubt that what just happened in the Galwan River Valley constitutes the biggest test yet faced by Narendra Modi’s government.

India’s prime minister has long been portrayed as a “strongman”. This image has been burnished by retaliatory strikes against Pakistani targets for cross border terrorism in 2016 and 2019, as well as by his government’s apparent resilience during the Doklam crisis.

Indian public opinion is already angry with China over COVID-19 and in the wake of the deaths on the LAC, some media outlets, as well as opposition politicians, are calling for retaliation.

There have been protests in India after the Himalayan clash.
Sanjeev Gupta EPA/AAP

Modi’s options are, however, constrained.

If he backs down, or even concedes the area around Galwan River Valley that some think Chinese soldiers are now occupying, he could face a political backlash from Indian voters.

If he orders some kind of military response, he risks a wider war. There have been persistent reports of troop build-ups right along the 3,500 kilometre frontier with China.

There is no guarantee a limited action would not escalate into something bigger, nor that India’s friends and partners, including the US, would support such a move.

All eyes now on China

Much depends on what Beijing hopes to gain.

If Xi is simply seeking to humiliate India for perceived transgressions – and warn it off deepening ties with its security partners – he may now order his troops to pull back, having made his point.

But if he wants to redraw the border and send a message to others – in Taiwan, Japan, Southeast Asia, or elsewhere – that China is determined to take what it claims – then deescalating the situation will be very difficult for New Delhi.




Read more:
Why is there so much furore over China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


The Conversation


Ian Hall, Deputy Director (Research), Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.