I recently received a copy of a most interesting book, A.B. Abrams’ “Power and Primacy: the history of western intervention in Asia” and as soon as I started reading it I decided that I wanted to interview the author and ask him about what is taking place in Asia in our times. This was especially interesting to me since Putin has embarked on the Russian version of Obama’s “pivot to Asia“, with the big difference that Putin’s pivot has already proven to be a fantastic success, whereas Obama’s was a dismal failure. I am most grateful to A.B. Abrams for his time and expertise.
The Saker: Please introduce yourself and your past and present political activities (books, articles, memberships, etc.)
A.B. Abrams: I am an expert on the international relations, recent history and geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. I have published widely on defense and politics related subjects under various pseudonyms. I am proficient in Chinese, Korean and other regional languages.
I wrote this book with the purpose of elucidating the nature of Western intervention in the region over the past 75 years, and analyzing prominent trends in the West’s involvement in the Asia-Pacific from the Pacific War with Imperial Japan to the current conflicts with China and North Korea. I attempt to show that Western conduct towards populations in the region, the designs of the Western powers for the region, and the means by which these have been pursued, have remained consistent over these past decades. This context is critical to understanding the present and future nature of Western intervention in the Asia-Pacific.
The Saker: You have recently published a most interesting book “Power and Primacy: the history of western interventions in Asia” which is a “must read” for anybody interested in Asia-western relations. You included a chapter on “The Russian Factor in the Asia-Pacific”. Historically, there is no doubt that pre-1917 Russia was seen in Asia as a “Western” power. But is that still true today? Many observers speak of a Russian “pivot” to Asia. What is your take on that? Is Russia still perceived as a “Western power” in Asia or is that changing?
A.B. Abrams: In the introduction to this work I highlight that a fundamental shift in world order was facilitated by the modernization and industrialization of two Eastern nations – Japan under the Meiji Restoration and the USSR under the Stalinist industrialization program. Before these two events the West had retained an effective monopoly on the modern industrial economy and on modern military force. Russia’s image is still affected by the legacy of the Soviet Union – in particular the way Soviet proliferation of both modern industries and modern weapons across much of the region was key to containing Western ambitions in the Cold War. Post-Soviet Russia has a somewhat unique position – with a cultural heritage influenced by Mongolia and Central Asia as well as by Europe. Politically Russia remains distinct from the Western Bloc, and perceptions of the country in East Asia have been heavily influenced by this. Perhaps today one the greatest distinctions is Russia’s eschewing of the principle of sovereignty under international law and its adherence to a non-interventionist foreign policy. Where for example the U.S., Europe and Canada will attempt to intervene in the internal affairs of other parties – whether by cutting off parts for armaments, imposing economic sanctions or even launching military interventions under humanitarian pretexts – Russia lacks a history of such behavior which has made it a welcome presence even for traditionally Western aligned nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia and South Korea.
While the Western Bloc attempted to isolate the USSR from East and Southeast Asia by supporting the spread of anticommunist thought, this pretext for shunning Russia collapsed in 1991. Today the West has had to resort to other means to attempt to contain and demonize the country – whether labelling it a human rights abuser or threatening its economic and defense partners with sanctions and other repercussions. The success of these measures in the Asia-Pacific has varied – but as regional economies have come to rely less on the West for trade and grown increasingly interdependent Western leverage over them and their foreign policies has diminished.
Even when considered as a Western nation, the type of conservative Western civilization which Russia may be seen to represent today differs starkly from that of Western Europe and North America. Regarding a Russia Pivot to Asia, support for such a plan appears to have increased from 2014 when relations with the Western Bloc effectively broke down. Indeed, the Russia’s future as a pacific power could be a very bright one – and as part of the up and coming northeast Asian region it borders many of the economies which appear set to dominate in the 21st century – namely China, Japan and the Koreas. Peter the Great is known to have issued in a new era of Russian prosperity by recognizing the importance of Europe’s rise and redefining Russia as a European power – moving the capital to St Petersburg. Today a similar though perhaps less extreme pivot Eastwards towards friendlier and more prosperous nations may be key to Russia’s future.
The Saker: We hear many observers speak of an informal but very profound and even game-changing partnership between Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China. The Chinese even speak of a “strategic comprehensive partnership of coordination for the new era“. How would you characterize the current relationship between these two countries and what prospects do you see for a future Russian-Chinese partnership?
A.B. Abrams: A Sino-Russian alliance has long been seen in both the U.S. and in Europe as one of the greatest threats to the West’s global primacy and to Western-led world order. As early as 1951 U.S. negotiators meeting with Chinese delegations to end the Korean War were instructed to focus on the differences in the positions of Moscow and Beijing in an attempt to form a rift between the two. Close Sino-Soviet cooperation seriously stifled Western designs for the Korean Peninsula and the wider region during that period, and it was repeatedly emphasized that the key to a Western victory was to bring about a Sino-Soviet split. Achieving this goal by the early 1960s and bringing the two powers very near to a total conflict significantly increased prospects for a Western victory in the Cold War, with the end of the previously united front seriously undermining nationalist and leftist movements opposing Western designs from Africa and the Middle East to Vietnam and Korea. Both states learned the true consequences of this in the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was a real risk of total collapse under Western pressure. Attempts to bring an end to China’s national revolution through destabilization failed in 1989, although the USSR was less fortunate and the results for the Russian population in the following decade were grave indeed.
Today the Sino-Russian partnership has become truly comprehensive, and while Western experts from Henry Kissinger to the late Zbigniew Brzezinski among others have emphasized the importance of bringing about a new split in this partnership this strategy remains unlikely to work a second time. Both Beijing and Moscow learned from the dark period of the post-Cold War years that the closer they are together the safer they will be, and that any rift between them will only provide their adversaries with the key to bringing about their downfall. It is difficult to comprehend the importance of the Sino-Russian partnership for the security of both states without understanding the enormity of the Western threat – with maximum pressure being exerted on multiple fronts from finance and information to military and cyberspace. Where in the early 1950s it was only the Soviet nuclear deterrent which kept both states safe from very real Western plans for massive nuclear attacks, so too today is the synergy in the respective strengths of China and Russia key to protecting the sovereignty and security of the two nations from a very real and imminent threat. A few examples of the nature of this threat include growing investments in social engineering through social media – the results of have been seen in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Ukraine, a lowering threshold for nuclear weapons use by the United States – which it currently trains Western allies outside the NPT to deploy, and even reports from Russian and Korean sources of investments in biological warfare – reportedly being tested in Georgia, Eastern Europe and South Korea.
The partnership between Russia and China has become truly comprehensive, and is perhaps best exemplified by their military relations. From 2016 joint military exercises have involved the sharing of extremely sensitive information on missile and early warning systems – one of the most well kept defense secrets of any nuclear power which even NATO powers do not share with one another. Russia’s defense sector has played a key role in the modernization of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, while Chinese investment has been essential to allowing Russia to continue research and development on next generation systems needed to retain parity with the United States. There is reportedly cooperation between the two in developing next generation weapons technologies for systems such as hypersonic cruise and anti aircraft missiles and new strategic bombers and fighter jets which both states plan to field by the mid-2020s. With the combined defense spending of both states a small fraction of that of the Western powers, which themselves cooperate closely in next generation defense projects, it is logical that the two should pool their resources and research and development efforts to most efficiently advance their own security.
Cooperation in political affairs has also been considerable, and the two parties have effectively presented a united front against the designs of the Western Bloc. In 2017 both issued strong warnings to the United States and its allies that they would not tolerate an invasion of North Korea – which was followed by the deployment of advanced air defense systems by both states near the Korean border with coverage of much of the peninsula’s airspace. Following Pyongyang’s testing of its first nuclear delivery system capable of reaching the United States, and renewed American threats against the East Asian country, China and Russia staged near simultaneous exercises near the peninsula using naval and marine units in a clear warning to the U.S. against military intervention. China’s Navy has on several occasions deployed to the Mediterranean for joint drills with Russian forces – each time following a period of high tension with the Western Bloc over Syria.
In April 2018, a period of particularly high tensions between Russia and the Western Bloc over Western threats both to take military action against the Syrian government and to retaliate for an alleged but unproven Russian chemical weapons attack on British soil, the Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe traveled to Russia and more explicitly stated that the Sino-Russian partnership was aimed at countering Western designs. Referring to the Sino-Russian defense partnership as “as stable as Mount Tai” he stated: “the Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the Armed Forces of China and Russia, especially in this situation. We have come to support you.” A week later China announced large-scale live fire naval drills in the Taiwan Strait – which according to several analysts were scheduled to coincide with a buildup of Western forces near Syria. Presenting a potential second front was key to deterring the Western powers from taking further action against Russia or its ally Syria. These are but a few examples Sino-Russian cooperation, which is set to grow only closer with time.
The Saker: The US remains the most formidable military power in Asia, but this military power is being eroded as a result of severe miscalculations of the US political leadership. How serious a crisis do you think the US is now facing in Asia and how do you assess the risks of a military confrontation between the US and the various Asian powers (China, the Philippines, the DPRK, etc,).
A.B. Abrams: Firstly I would dispute that the United States is the most formidable military power in the region, as while it does retain a massive arsenal there are several indicators that it lost this position to China during the 2010s. Looking at combat readiness levels, the average age of weapons in their inventories, morale both publicly and in the armed forces, and most importantly the correlation of their forces, China appears to have an advantage should war break out in the Asia-Pacific. It is important to remember that the for the Untied States and its European allies in particular wars aren’t fought on a chessboard. Only a small fraction of their military might can be deployed to the Asia-Pacific within a month of a conflict breaking out, while over 95% of Chinese forces are already on the region and are trained and armed almost exclusively for war in the conditions of the Asia-Pacific. In real terms the balance of military power regionally is in China’s favor, and although the U.S. has tried to counter this with a military ‘Pivot to Asia’ initiative from 2011 this has ultimately failed due to both the drag from defense commitments elsewhere and the unexpected and pace at which China has expanded and modernized its armed forces.
For the time being the risk of direct military confrontation remains low, and while there was a risk in 2017 of American and allied action against the DPRK Pyongyang has effectively taken this option off the table with the development of a viable and growing arsenal of thermonuclear weapons and associated delivery systems alongside the modernization of its conventional capabilities. While the U.S. may have attempted to call a Chinese and Russian bluff by launching a limited strike – which seriously risked spiraling into something much larger – it is for the benefit of all regional parties including South Korea that the DPRK now has the ability to deter the United States without relying on external support. This was a historically unprecedented event, and as military technology has evolved it has allowed a small power for the first time to deter a superpower without relying on allied intervention. Changes in military technology such as the proliferation of the nuclear tipped ICBM make a shooting war less likely, but also alters the nature of warfare to place greater emphasis on information war, economic war and other new fields which will increasingly decide the global balance of power. Where America’s answer to the resistance of China and North Korea in the 1950s to douse them with napalm, today winning over their populations through soft power, promoting internal dissent, placing pressure on their living standards and ensuring continued Western dominance of key technologies has become the new means of fighting.
That being said, there is a major threat of conflict in the Asia-Pacific of a different nature. Several organizations including the United Nations and the defense ministries of Russia, Singapore and Indonesia among others have warned of the dangers posed by Islamic terrorism to stability in the region. Radical Islamism, as most recently attested to by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, played a key role in allowing the Western Bloc to cement its dominance over the Middle East and North Africa – undermining Russian and Soviet aligned governments including Algeria, Libya, Egypt and Syria – in most cases with direct Western support. CIA Deputy Director Graham Fuller in this respect referred to the agency’s “policy of guiding the evolution of Islam and of helping them against our adversaries.” Several officials, from the higher brass of the Russian, Syrian and Iranian militaries to the former President of Afghanistan and the President of Turkey, have all alleged Western support for radical terror groups including the Islamic State for the sake of destabilizing their adversaries. As the Asia-Pacific has increasingly slipped out of the Western sphere of influence, it is likely that this asset will increasingly be put into play. The consequences of the spread of jihadism from the Middle East have been relatively limited until now, but growing signs of danger can be seen in Xinjiang, Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia. It is this less direct means of waging war which arguably poses the greatest threat.
The Saker: Do you think that we will see the day when US forces will have to leave South Korean, Japan or Taiwan?
A.B. Abrams: Other than a limited contingent of Marines recently deployed to guard the American Institute, U.S. forces are not currently stationed in Taiwan. The massive force deployed there in the 1950s was scaled down and American nuclear weapons removed in 1974 in response to China’s acceptance of an alliance with the United States against the Soviet Union. Taiwan’s military situation is highly precarious and the disparity in its strength relative to the Chinese mainland grows considerably by the year. Even a large American military presence is unlikely to change this – and just 130km from the Chinese mainland they would be extremely vulnerable and could be quickly isolated from external support in the event of a cross straits war. We could, however, see a small American contingent deployed as a ‘trigger wire’ – which will effectively send a signal to Beijing that the territory is under American protection and that an attempt to recapture Taiwan will involve the United States. Given trends in public opinion in Taiwan, and the very considerable pro-Western sentiments among the younger generations in particular, it is likely that Taipei will look to a greater rather than a lesser Western military presence on its soil in future.
Japan and particularly South Korea see more nuanced public opinion towards the U.S., and negative perceptions of an American military presence may well grow in future – though for different reasons in each country. Elected officials alone, however, are insufficient to move the American presence – as best demonstrated by the short tenure of Prime Minister Hatoyama in Japan and the frustration of President Moon’s efforts to restrict American deployments of THAAD missile systems in his first year. It would take a massive mobilization of public opinion – backed by business interests and perhaps the military – to force such a change. This remains possible however, particularly as both economies grow increasingly reliant on China for trade and as the U.S. is seen to have acted increasingly erratically in response to challenges from Beijing and Pyongyang which has undermined its credibility. As to a voluntary withdrawal by the United States, this remains extremely unlikely. President Donald Trump ran as one of the most non-interventionist candidates in recent history, but even under him and with considerable public support prospects for a significant reduction in the American presence, much less a complete withdrawal, have remained slim.
The Saker: Some circles in Russia are trying very hard to frighten the Russian public opinion against China alleging things like “China want to loot (or even conquer!) Siberia”, “China will built up its military and attack Russia” or “China with its huge economy will simply absorb small Russia”. In your opinion are any of these fears founded and, if yes, which ones and why?
A.B. Abrams: A growth in Sinophobic sentiment in Russia only serves to weaken the nation and empower its adversaries by potentially threatening its relations with its most critical strategic partner. The same is applicable vice-versa regarding Russophobia in China. Given the somewhat Europhilic nature of the Russian state in a number of periods, including in the 1990s, and the considerable European soft influences in modern Russia, there are grounds for building up of such sentiment. Indeed Radio Free Europe, a U.S. government funded nonprofit broadcasting corporation with the stated purpose of “advancing the goals of U.S. foreign policy,” notably published sinophobic content aimed at depicting the Russian people as victims of Chinese business interests to coincide with the Putin-XI summit in June 2019. However, an understanding of the modern Chinese state and its interests indicates that it does not pose a threat to Russia – and to the contrary is vital to Russia’s national security interests. While Russia historically has cultural ties to the Western nations, the West has shown Russian considerable hostility throughout its recent history – as perhaps is most evident in the 1990s when Russia briefly submitted itself and sought to become part of the Western led order with terrible consequences. China by contrast has historically conducted statecraft based on the concept of a civilization state – under which its strength is not measured by the weakness and subjugation of others but by its internal achievements. A powerful and independent Russia capable of protecting a genuine rules based world order and holding lawless actors in check is strongly in the Chinese interest. It is clear that in Russia such an understanding exists on a state level, although there is no doubt that there will be efforts by external parties to turn public opinion against China to the detriment of the interests of both states.
The idea that China would seek to economically subjugate Russia, much less invade it, is ludicrous. It was from Europe were the major invasions of Russian territory came – vast European coalitions led by France and Germany respectively with a third American led attack planned and prepared for but stalled by the Soviet acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. More recently from the West came sanctions, the austerity program of the 1990s, the militarization of Eastern Europe, and the demonization of the Russian nation – all intended to subjugate and if possible shatter it. Even at the height of its power, China did not colonize the Koreans, Vietnamese or Japanese nor did it seek to conquer Central Asia. Assuming China will have the same goals and interests as a Western state would if they were in a similar position of strength is to ignore the lessons of history, and the nature of the Chinese national character and national interest.
The Saker: The Russian military is currently vastly more capable (even if numerically much smaller) than the Chinese. Does anybody in China see a military threat from Russia?
A.B. Abrams: There may be marginalized extreme nationalists in China who see a national security from almost everybody, but in mainstream discourse there are no such perceptions. To the contrary, Russia’s immense contribution to Chinese security is widely recognized – not only in terms of technological transfers but also in terms of the value of the joint front the two powers have formed. Russia not only lacks a history of annexing East Asian countries or projecting force against them, but it is also heavily reliant on China in particular both to keep its defense sector active and to undermine Western attempts to isolate it. Russian aggression against China is unthinkable for Moscow – even if China did not possess its current military strength and nuclear deterrence capabilities. This is something widely understood in China and elsewhere.
I would dispute that Russia’s military is vastly more capable than China’s own, as other than nuclear weapons there is a similar level of capabilities in most sectors in both countries. While Russia has a lead in many key technologies such as hypersonic missiles, air defenses and submarines to name a few prominent examples, China has been able to purchase and integrate many of these into its own armed forces alongside the products of its own defense sector. Russia’s most prominent fighter jet for example, the Flanker (in all derivatives from Su-27 to J-11D), is in fact fielded in larger numbers by China than by Russia itself – and those in Chinese service have access to both indigenous as well as Russian munitions and subsystems. Furthermore, there are some less critical but still significant sectors where China does appear to retain a lead – for example it deployed combat jets equipped with a new generation of active electronically scanned array radars and air to air missiles from 2017 (J-20 and in 2018 J-10C) – while Russia has only done so this in July 2019 with the induction of the MiG-35. Whether this is due to a Chinese technological advantage, or to a greater availability of funds to deploy its new technologies faster, remains uncertain. Russia’s ability to provide China with its most vital technologies, and China’s willingness to rely so heavily on Russian technology to comprise so much of its inventory, demonstrates the level of trust between the two countries
The Saker: Do you think that China could become a military threat to other countries in the region (especially Taiwan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.)?
A.B. Abrams: I would direct you to a quote by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamed from March this year. He stated: “we always say, we have had China as a neighbor for 2,000 years, we were never conquered by them. But the Europeans came in 1509, in two years, they conquered Malaysia.” This coming from a nationalist leader considered one of the most sinophobic in Southeast Asia, whose country has an ongoing territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, bears testament to the nature of claims of a Chinese threat. It is critical not to make the mistake of imposing Western norms when trying to understand Chinese statecraft. Unlike the European states, China is not and has never been dependent on conquering others to enrich itself – but rather was a civilization state which measured its wealth by what it could its own people could produce. A harmonious relationship with India, Vietnam, the Philippines and others in which all states’ sovereign and territorial integrity is respected is in the Chinese interest.
A second aspect which must be considered, and which bears testament to China’s intentions, is the orientation of the country’s armed forces. While the militaries of the United States and European powers such as Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and France among others are heavily skewed to prioritize power projection overseas, China’s military has made disproportionately small investments in power projection and is overwhelmingly tailored to territorial defense. While the United States has over 300 tanker aircraft deigned to refuel its combat jets midair and attack faraway lands, China has just three purpose-built tankers – less than Malaysia, Chile or Pakistan. The ratio of logistical to combat units further indicates that China’s armed forces, in stark contrast to the Western powers, are heavily oriented towards defense and fighting near their borders.
This all being said, China does pose an imminent threat to the government in Taipei – although I would disagree with your categorization of Taiwan as a country. Officially the Republic of China (ROC- as opposed to the Beijing based People’s Republic of China), Taipei has not declared itself a separate country but rather the rightful government of the entire Chinese nation. Taipei remains technically at war with the mainland, a conflict would have ended in 1950 if the U.S. had not placed the ROC under its protection. The fast growing strength of the mainland has shifted the balance of power dramatically should the conflict again break out into open hostilities. China has only to gain from playing the long game with Taiwan however – providing scholarships and jobs for its people to live on the mainland and thus undermining the demonization of the country and hostility towards a peaceful reunification. Taiwan’s economic reliance on the mainland has also grown considerably, and these softer methods of bridging the gaps between the ROC and the mainland are key to facilitating unification. Meanwhile the military balance in the Taiwan Strait only grows more favorable for Beijing by the year – meaning there is no urgency to take military action. While China will insist on unification, it will seek to avoid doing so violently unless provoked.
The Saker: In conclusion: where in Asia do you see the next major conflict take place and why?
A.B. Abrams: The conflict in the Asia-Pacific is ongoing, but the nature of conflict has changed. We see an ongoing and so far highly successful de-radicalization effort in Xinjiang – which was taken in direct response to Western attempts to turn the province into ‘China’s Syria or China’s Libya,’ in the words of Chinese state media, using similar means. We see a harsh Western response to the Made in China 2025 initiative under which the country has sought to compete in key technological fields formerly monopolized by the Western Bloc and Japan – and the result of this will have a considerable impact on the balance of economic power in the coming years. We see direct economic warfare and technological competition between China and the United States – although the latter has so far refrained from escalating too far due to the potentially devastating impact reprisals could have. We further see an information war in full swing, with Sinophobic stories often citing ‘anonymous sources’ being propagated by Western media to target not only their own populations – but also to influence public opinion in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Influence over third parties remains vital to isolating China and cementing the Western sphere of influence. Use of social media and social engineering, as the events of the past decade have demonstrated from the Middle East in 2011 to Hong Kong today, remains key and will only grow in its potency in the coming years. We also see a major arms race, with the Western Bloc investing heavily in an all new generation of weapons designed to leave existing Chinese and allied defenses obsolete – from laser air defenses to neutralize China’s nuclear deterrent to sixth generation stealth fighters, new heavy bombers, new applications of artificial intelligence technologies and new hypersonic missiles.
All these are fronts of the major conflict currently underway, and the Obama and Trump administrations have stepped up their offensives to bring about a new ‘end of history’ much like that of the 1990s – only this time it is likely to be permanent. To prevail, China and Russia will need to cooperate at least as closely if not more so as the Western powers do among themselves.
The Saker: thank you very much for your time and answers!