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What does the Bhutan-China border agreement mean for India?
By Amar Diwakar (TRT)
Thursday’s roadmap signed by Bhutan and China towards resolving their longstanding boundary dispute could have strategic implications for India’s northeastern flank.
Bhutan and China’s agreement on a “three-step” roadmap to resolve their disputed border was met with a cautious reaction from India, a development which could have strategic implications for New Delhi moving forward.
The signing of the pact on Thursday comes four years after Chinese and Indian troops were locked in a 73-day standoff at the Doklam tri-junction, following China’s attempt to extend a road in the area that Bhutan claimed belonged to it.
“We have noted the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Bhutan and China today. You are aware that Bhutan and China have been holding boundary negotiations since 1984. India has similarly been holding boundary negotiations with China,” said India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi at a media briefing.
A few hours earlier, Bhutan’s foreign ministry released a statement announcing the signing of the MoU through a virtual ceremony, inked by Bhutan’s foreign minister Tandi Dorji and China’s assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao.
“The [MoU] on the Three-Step Roadmap will provide a fresh impetus to the Boundary Talks,” the Bhutanese foreign ministry added. It stated that Bhutan and China had “agreed” on the roadmap during the tenth expert group meeting that took place in Kunming in April this year.
Bhutan announced that the MoU – which is not yet public – would be exchanged between two sides through diplomatic channels.
China and Bhutan do not have formal diplomatic relations, and all communication is channeled through their missions in New Delhi.
Thursday’s agreement comes amid a continuing standoff between India and China in several friction points in eastern Ladakh.
Depending on how negotiations proceed, it may end up presenting a number of security concerns for India.
“The MoU has strategic significance for India’s national security in a region that connects the Indian mainland to the northeast,” Aravind Joshi, a researcher in South Asian security affairs with Global Risk Intelligence, told TRT World.
Chinese state media outlet Cnhubei reported a similar view in its response to Thursday’s pact.
“In the China-Bhutan agreement, the main source of fear for India is the issue of India’s detached northeast states,” it said, calling the troubled region India’s “soft underbelly.”
But for Medha Bisht, a professor at South Asian University and expert on Bhutanese foreign policy, the inking of the agreement for a roadmap was “not surprising” and should “not raise eyebrows” as it had been “anticipated for a long time”.
“Much of the groundwork had already been done since 2010,” she told The Wire.
Back in 2010, Bhutan and China agreed to carry out a joint field survey of the disputed regions, which was completed by 2015.
The importance of Bhutan’s border
In 2017, the India-China standoff in the Doklam plateau triggered fears of a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. Bhutan maintained the area belonged to it and India supported the Bhutanese claim. New Delhi also opposed construction of a road by Beijing at the Doklam tri-junction on national security grounds.
Indian and Chinese troops withdrew from Doklam following a 73-day stalemate, but satellite images subsequently showed the buildup of Chinese military infrastructure in the region.
Last June, China staked a claim on the Sakteng wildlife sanctuary, marking the first time the Chinese had singled out any territory in eastern Bhutan.
Bhutan shares a 400-km-long contested border with China. Beijing claims around 765 square kms of Bhutanese territory, distributed between the north-west and central regions of the Himalayan kingdom.
Direct bilateral talks began in 1984, and since then there have been 24 rounds of boundary talks and ten rounds of meetings at the expert group level.
In 1997, China offered to give up claims on areas in central Bhutan in exchange for territory on its western flank, including Doklam. Bhutan refused the deal, reportedly under pressure from India, which was concerned over Chinese encroachment near its narrow Siliguri Corridor.
China’s Chumbi Valley, north of the Doklam plateau, and India’s Siliguri Corridor, south of Doklam, are strategic mountain chokepoints critical to both China and India.
The ethnically-Tibetan Chumbi Valley, described as the most strategically important real estate in the Himalayas, gives Beijing the ability to cut off the 24-km-wide Siliguri Corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh, which connects New Delhi to its northeastern states.
“Maintaining control of the Chumbi Valley and gaining control over Doklam gives China a tactical advantage over India in a potential conflict. Beijing would then have a significant advantage where it can outflank Indian defensive entrenchments in Sikkim [one of India’s northeastern states], as well as being able to cut off the Siliguri Corridor,” said Joshi from Global Risk Intelligence.
“India would not only lose the ability to mount a strategic counter-offensive, but also grant the Chinese a launch pad for offensives into Kalimpong.”
Kalimpong, a small town in West Bengal with a centuries-old connection to Tibet, was the trigger behind the escalation of India-Chinese tensions over their border disputes that began in the 1950s.
As China-India goes, so goes South Asia
Over the past decade, China has increased its foreign policy engagement with South Asian countries which have traditionally been under India’s influence, like Nepal and Sri Lanka.
However, Bhutan has remained a stubborn obstacle for Beijing, given the ongoing failure to demarcate their boundary, which Bhutan viewed as a serious security threat.
For India, Beijing’s increased South Asian footprint is wrapped up in Beijing’s grand strategy in the region. When it comes to Bhutan, it will exhaust all means to prevent formal Sino-Bhutanese ties from taking shape.
Consequently, the hermetic kingdom’s strategic importance in the hegemonic tussle between two Asian giants also makes it “vulnerable” to undue influence and interference in its domestic affairs, explains Joshi.
“Bhutan does not want to get dragged into geopolitical rivalry between India and China. It sees this zero-sum competition as a recipe for domestic instability, and a more volatile region overall.”
But it might not have much of a choice.
“Ultimately, India-China dynamics will play a significant role in determining how Bhutan pursues opening up diplomatic ties with Beijing,” Joshi emphasised.
Xi: Democracy a ‘key tenet’
By CAO DESHENG | China Daily
Whether people are masters of country is true yardstick, he says at meeting
President Xi Jinping has underlined further promoting whole-process democracy that enables the Chinese people to be broadly involved in national governance, saying that whether a country is democratic or not depends on whether it is truly run by the people.
Xi, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, made the remark while addressing a central conference on work related to people’s congresses, which was held from Wednesday to Thursday in Beijing.
He called for upholding and improving the system of people’s congresses, a political system fundamental to the Party’s leadership, the running of the country by the people, and law-based governance. He said that such a system ensures the realization of whole-process democracy in the country.
In China’s political system, the people exercise State power through the National People’s Congress, the country’s top legislature, and local people’s congresses at different levels, ensuring their interests are reflected in the decision-making process.
Xi called Chinese democracy “whole-process people’s democracy” for the first time in November 2019 during an inspection tour of Shanghai. This enables the Chinese people to broadly and continuously participate in day-to-day political activities, including democratic elections, political consultation, decision-making and oversight.
“Democracy, a shared value of humanity, is a key tenet unswervingly upheld by the CPC and the Chinese people,” Xi emphasized.
Democracy is not an ornament to be used for decoration, it is to be used to solve the problems that the people want to solve, he said.
The key to a country’s democracy lies in whether the people run the country, depending on if the people have the right to vote and more importantly, whether the people have the right to broad participation, he said.
“If the people are awakened only for voting but enter a dormant period soon after, if they are given a song and dance during campaigning but have no say after the election, or if they are favored during canvassing but are left out in the cold after the election, such a democracy is not a true democracy,” Xi said.
Judging whether a country is democratic or not, Xi said, should also take into account what political procedures and rules are stipulated by the systems and laws. More importantly, it is also a question of whether these systems and laws are implemented well, he added.
Xi said democracy is a right that all people around the world enjoy, not a privilege reserved to a small minority of countries. Whether a country is democratic or not should be judged by its own people, not by a handful of people from outside it, Xi said, adding that whether a member of the international community is democratic or not should be judged together by the international community, not by a self-righteous minority.
There are many ways to achieve democracy, and there is no one-size-fits-all model, Xi pointed out. It is undemocratic in itself to use a single yardstick to measure the world’s various political systems and examine the rich political civilization of mankind with a monochrome eye, he added.
Whole-process people’s democracy in China not only has a complete set of institutions and procedures, but also full participation, Xi said.
He also called for focusing on whether the rules and procedures for the operation of power are democratic while stressing that the key issue lies in whether power is really supervised by the people.
While highlighting that whole-process people’s democracy in China is “the broadest, most genuine, and most effective socialist democracy” safeguarding the fundamental interests of the people, Xi called for efforts to further promote the principle of the running of the country by the people in national governance and reflect this in specific efforts to meet people’s aspirations for a better life.
The people’s congress system has provided an important institutional guarantee for the Chinese people, led by the CPC, to create the miracles of fast economic growth and long-term social stability over the past 60 years, particularly over the four decades of reform and opening-up, Xi said.
He required efforts to strengthen and improve work related to people’s congresses in the new era, saying that the Constitution must be fully implemented and its sanctity and authority must be upheld.
Efforts should be stepped up to improve the legal system with Chinese characteristics to ensure that lawmaking contributes to the country’s development and ensures good governance, Xi said.
He stressed the need to strengthen the overall leadership over legislative work by the Party, and called for expanding the people’s participation in political affairs, as well as increasing legal protection for human rights to ensure that the people enjoy extensive rights and freedoms as prescribed by law.
The people’s right to be informed, participate and heard, and to supervise, must be guaranteed in every aspect of the work related to people’s congresses, Xi said.
He also said that people’s congresses should properly and effectively exercise their power of supervision in accordance with the law, and deputies to people’s congresses should fully exercise their duties.
OP-ED: AUKUS: Cold War Rehashed?
The 20th century was marked with strife – actual and proxy wars ravaged the earth, irrevocably changing the geopolitical landscape and effectively setting back humanity by several decades. The multi-decade tension between the then Soviet Union and the United States, supported by their respective allies, created conflicts across the globe. Historians point to the US led 1947 Truman Doctrine as the start to the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the end point of this massive conflict.
Aside from the nuclear arsenal development and conventional military deployment, the struggle for dominance was expressed via indirect means such as psychological warfare, propaganda campaigns, espionage, far-reaching embargoes, rivalry at sports events and technological competitions such as the Space Race.
Peace did not seem to be in cards for humanity following the dissolution of Soviet Union. Proxy wars continue to plague Middle East. Many of the economic and social tensions that were exploited to fuel Cold War competition in parts of the Third World remain acute. The breakdown of state control in a number of areas formerly ruled by communist governments produced new civil and ethnic conflicts, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. In Central and Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War has ushered in an era of economic growth and an increase in the number of liberal democracies, while in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, independence was accompanied by state failure.
The fall out was harder on the world. And yet, power brokers cannot refrain from hegemonistic adventures.
The latest to this is the trilateral security partnership signed between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, titled AUKUS. The agreement was agreed on September 15. AUKUS, a de facto trilateral security alliance in traditional international politics, is the only multilateral military security alliance in the Asia-Pacific in the past 30 years.
The initiative is clearly another effort to keep China and the rise of East in ‘check’, the first being the Quad – an alliance between United States, Australia, India, and Japan. Under the AUKUS pact, the US and UK will help Australia build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, the first time that Washington and London will be sharing sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Canberra.
The technology is sensitive as US and British submarine reactors use uranium that is enriched at 93 to 97 per cent, and anything above 90 per cent is considered “weapons-grade” uranium with potentially dangerous implications.
There are currently only six countries with nuclear-powered submarines –US, Russia, China, UK, France and India. The US is the world leader in this area, with 68 nuclear-powered submarines, while Russia has 29 and China has 12, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
US President Joe Biden has claimed the China-US relations will be the battle of the century, hailing this conflict as the litmus test for which is better – democracy or autocracy.
Experts have already warned of the economic and ecological fall out from this. An opinion piece released by Project Syndicate said that such militaristic advances will only increase resource consumption and cause more environmental damage. The Group warned that this will ‘divert funding that could otherwise be allocated toward climate-change mitigation and adaptation, impede global cooperation, and undermine human well-being’.
As of now, most of Asia is reeling from the debilitating effects of the covid-19 pandemic. Asian nations, such as our Maldives, face immense challenges in the form of climate change. A nuclear arms race in the region would destabilize years of development and economic growth.
When the Cold War lingered across the globe, most of Asian nations, especially South East Asian nations, chose non-alignment. The Non-Alignment Movement started in the 1950’s, ensured that nations were free from the polarizing conflict.
Non-alignment would not be easy in this time and age. The pandemic was a stark reminder of this. A microscopic virus showed human frailty and the importance of working together for human advancement. An arms race would only result in human lives lost.
History shows us that nations tend to engage in meaningless shows of force and expansion at the end of their ‘greatness’. The empires created from these expansions created the massive blackholes of military spending, which drained the public coffers.
Present day US is, no surprise, in decline. The nation’s inability to take care of the neediest in their society is frankly appalling. America claims supremacy in all fronts of civic leadership. Yet, in the past years, we have seen US Senator Bernard Sanders head to Canada with US citizens to fill their medical prescriptions. We have seen peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors facing police brutality. We have seen home grown radical extremists shooting up schools. We have seen former President Donald Trump’s supporters break into the Capitol, calling to ‘Hang Mike Pence’. We have seen a nation divided over a covid vaccine that continue to kill thousands.
The UK fares no better. The country is plagued by increasing economic inequality. UK politicians are gummed up in Brexit – a deal, which was promised to be ‘oven ready’. Brits, with their self-deprecating humor, can take the mickey out of any situation. However, how long can the Johnson administration continue to claim that things are on plan?
Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of these alliances is Japan. The country was the victim of the nuclear attacks by the US. Japan continues to mark the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this date. The country experienced the debilitating effects of the Fukushima meltdown. And yet, the country continues to engage in agreements and alliances that leave room to create a nuclear arms race.
The 20th century was a century of conflict and abject human misery. Nations are still reeling from the lingering effects of it. Let not 21st century be a century of conflict and abject misery.
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