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MP-IDSA and JISS Third Annual Bilateral Dialogue

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  • January 13, 2022

    Executive Summary

    The US-China relationship is simply not just trade rivalry, but it is a discourse in itself. It is based on preserving respected status in global affairs, engaging in economic cooperation and cohesion, military partnership and adventurism. To challenge China’s growing influence in the South China Sea and beyond, the Biden administration has given a lot of importance to multi-alliance politics. From Chinese view, President Xi Jinping’s major foreign policy is to build and prepare China to challenge US national security interests in the longer run.

    The regional security situation in West Asia remains volatile with Syria, Yemen and Lebanon undergoing prolonged crises. However, West Asia has also registered some positive developments. The Abraham Accords have provided a strong foundation to Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain relations. Other significant developments include the formation of the new Quad between India, Israel, UAE and the US, Qatar-GCC reconciliation, Saudi Arabia-Iran reconciliation talks. Iran is providing UAVs to its proxies such as Houthis in Yemen, militias in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

    Since the historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2017, India-Israel ties have transformed with political ballast adding robustness to the strength of the relationship. While cooperation in other sectors like homeland security and agriculture is coming on apace, an important arena of future growth in India-Israel bilateral ties could be cooperation in the science and technology and innovation sphere.

    Detailed Report

    The third Bilateral Dialogue between MP-IDSA and the JISS was held virtually on January 13, 2022. Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General MP-IDSA, and Prof. Efraim Inbar, President JISS, led the Dialogue on both sides. The Dialogue deliberated on the three central themes: US-China Rivalry, Regional Developments in West Asia and India-Israel Bilateral Relations. Scholars from both sides frankly put forward their views on these issues and discussed the possibilities of further cooperation between the two Institutes in the future.

    In his opening remarks Amb. Sujan Chinoy, stated that the US-China rivalry is affecting current global geopolitics. He said that the global order is in a state of flux. Multilateralism is becoming weaker and multi-alliance is increasingly becoming stronger. This shift is threatening China as it is suspicious of anything that does not include them. Comparing China policies of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Amb. Chinoy stated that though Biden cites China as its major rival, the modus operandi is different from that of Trump. Unlike Trump, Biden’s decision-making involves other partners, parties and people. As a result, Biden’s efforts to strengthen Trans-Atlantic, Trans-Pacific partnerships and his three-prompt policy – cooperation, extreme competition and rivalry is viewed as more insidious by China.

    Amb. Chinoy stated that China welcomes cooperation with US and seeks to expand its bilateral ties. China asserts that it can live with competition provided it is positive in nature. However, it is determined to oppose the US, if they regard China as its adversary. In this context, China views AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific, which adds to the existence of the Quad, skeptically. Moreover, AUKUS is a military pact, and unlike the Quad, it deals with broader cooperation themes such as critical supply chain, vaccine development, technology, capacity building, freedom of navigation etc.

    Speaking on the concept of decoupling with China, Amb. Chinoy stated that it is hard to decouple in this globalised world of interconnectedness. But, in the semi-conductor space, the US appears to have succeeded in slowing China’s advance in artificial intelligence, telecommunication etc., so far. Amb. Chinoy giving an example of India, stated that when India faced harsh sanctions by the international community, including the US after India’s 1974 nuclear tests, the effective result was India progressed rapidly in terms of missile development programmes. So, the denial regime also creates greater determination and clarity of thought and purpose. Amb. Chinoy further highlighted the growing misconceived yet popular rhetoric of the US’ decline and China’s ascendance. China had a spectacular rise, but as compared to the US, Beijing has a long way to go – politically, socially and economically.

    Lastly, speaking on India-Israel ties, Amb. Chinoy stated that the relationship is being drastically transformed today. India and Israel are the most natural of partners, and India welcomes Israel doing more in Asia, including the Indo-Pacific. Highlighting the existing cooperation, he stated that India and Israel share strong ties in the agriculture and defence sector. Health and technology can also be huge pillars in India-Israel bilateral ties. The recent formation of the second Quad involving India, Israel, US and the UAE marks another milestone in India-Israel bilateral relations. However, there is need to give a shape and balance to take this pact forward. India has excellent relations with US and UAE, so there is optimism about the new Quad. These countries have the potential to collectively tackle many common challenges emerging in the region.

    Session 1: The US-China Rivalry

    The theme of the first session was the US-China Rivalry and it was chaired by Amb. Sujan R. Chinoy. The session had three panelists, namely, Prof. Eitan Gilboa (JISS), Prof. Gabi Siboni (JISS) and Dr. Jagannath Panda (Research Fellow and Coordinator, East Asia Centre, MP-IDSA). 

    In his presentation, Prof. Eitan Gilboa evaluated Joe Biden’s presidency during the first year of his tenure. He stated that Biden was more focused on domestic issues like price rise, economy, the pandemic, deep polarisation etc. Biden’s announcement of US withdrawal from Afghanistan created a negative impression. Besides, the US is withdrawing from world issues such as China, Russia, Climate Change, Human rights etc. For, Prof. Gilboa, Biden is attempting to restore good relations with the European Union. He intends to work much closer with the UN and other agencies. Biden prefers multilateral diplomacy as compared to unilateral diplomacy that Trump practised.

    Speaking on China, US and Israel, Prof. Gilboa said that there is a continuity in American foreign policy from Obama to the Biden era. Obama spoke about Asia focusing on China, India and the wider Asian continent. Obama could not do so as the US was occupied with the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, Biden heavily criticised China on several issues, many of which China perceives as its internal matter such as the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan and oppression against the Uyghur Muslims. The US is also concerned about the building of military bases in the artificial island in the South China Sea.

    China wants to become a superpower peacefully. But looking at today’s scenarios, Chinese actions do not seem peaceful rather they are aggressive. China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is a clever strategy in this context. China has a large number of resources and it invests these resources in many parts of the world-building roads, bridges, ports, infrastructure etc. By acquiring Chinese loans other developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America give China some degree of control. Prof Gilboa also explained US concern about China’s progress in artificial intelligence, big data, cyber-security, 5G telecommunication etc.

    BRI initiative is becoming a trend in the Middle East as well. China’s economic investment and projects, particularly the construction of Haifa port in Israel has angered the US. The China-Iran 25 year strategic partnership with an estimated US$ 400 billion investment in Iran is likely to provide a lifeline for Iran’s return in the region. Israel has a major battle with Iran and this deal seems to change the equation in the region and also for the US bloc.

    According to Prof. Gabi Siboni, cyberspace must be understood and consumed in a more globalised way. China is very heavily involved in developing its cyberspace in terms of both offensive and defensive capabilities. China uses offensive capabilities in an aggressive way towards anyone who is a potential challenge. He said that China that is threatening US critical infrastructure and assets. Not only the US, even the EU issued few alerts to its member states on Chinese cyber activity. While the West cannot control every criminal or cybercrime that is taking place, the use of criminal proceedings against the criminal groups supported by the states like Russia and China for political purposes can be limited. He said that it is a common practice for China to be involved with many malicious groups directly or indirectly to act outside of China. Beijing has decided to replace the Western economy and technology, and it is using every means to achieve it. China is also seeking to expand its industry and company espionage.  Nevertheless, America, the EU and Canada are trying their best to contain China, its industry and private companies are committed to investing a lot of money in cybersecurity and technology. He also stated that Israel also faces similar threats in the region and it is working towards enhancing its cyber potential even further.

    Dr. Jagannath Panda stated that US-China relations is simply not just rivalry, but it is deeper and bigger than that. It is a discourse in itself that is significantly setting international relations in the arena of political, military, economic and ideological components. Perhaps, the rivalry is at the elementary stage. There is a strategic competition between them, though not an outright confrontation. From a holistic point of view, US-China rivalry is based on preserving respected status in global affairs, engaging in influential cooperation such as economic cooperation and cohesion, military partnership and adventurism.

    He said that the US-China rivalry is based on trade, economic, international financing policy, technology and clash of leadership in global governance. China is making more grounds and the US is pushing for alignment and alliance politics which is widening the rift between the democratic and authoritarian principles. He said that from the US point of view, China’s rise has arrived as a threat to US dominance in global affairs. Since Trump’s presidency, the US officials, strategic community and the policy makers have continuously made China a long term strategic threat. Not the US alone, but there are growing anti-China narratives across the globe. President Biden’s similar anti-China path gives a lot of importance to multi-alliance politics. The US focus on Quad, Quad plus, AUKUS, B3W initiatives etc. is based on anti-China narratives to pose a challenge to BRI and try to create a global narrative in promoting resilient and quality infrastructure.

    From a Chinese perspective, President Xi Jinping’s major foreign policy is to build and prepare China to challenge US national security interests in the longer run. Xi’s gradual consolidation of political power has put the communist party in the global spotlight. A central feature of power consolidation is the transformation of the Chinese government’s decision-making process. A decade back it was a collective practice, but today, China’s decision-making process has become more authoritarian and singular which is dictated and directed by Xi Jinping.

    He concluded by saying that from a broader perspective, US-China rivalry is not in the interest of the region. Their rivalry is seriously undermining the multilateral institutions and global governance architectures. It is also significantly affecting peace and stability in the international arena. India would like to escape this bipolar mode of power politics. However, it does not have much choice apart from aligning with the US and other democratic countries in the world. 

    Session 2: Regional Developments and Bilateral relations

    The second session of the dialogue focused on the important developments taking place in the region and India-Israel bilateral relations; and was chaired by Prof. Efraim Inbar. Speakers in this session were Dr. P K Pradhan (Associate Fellow and Coordinator, West Asia Centre, MP-IDSA), Dr. S Samuel C Rajiv (Associate Fellow, MP-IDSA) and Prof. Uzi Rubin (JISS).

    Dr. Pradhan said that the Abraham Accords have provided a strong foundation to Israel-UAE and Israel-Bahrain relations, which is reflected in the rapid improvement in the ties between these countries. According to him this has been an extraordinary step in a volatile region like West Asia. These efforts have also been welcomed by India which supports peace and stability in the region and favours cooperation among the regional countries in this regard. The agreement between India, Israel, UAE and the US known as the new Quad is another significant step. From India’s point of view this development is important since India is serious about engaging with these countries, reflected in its high-level official meeting with them held in November 2021. In his view, the new Quad countries must make serious efforts to achieving something meaningful in future. 

    With regard to the Gulf region, he said that the unity in GCC has been restored during the Al Ula summit. However, the Iranian issue still continues to trouble them. During the GCC summit held in December 2021, they discussed Iran’s destabilising activities in the region by its proxies. They deliberated on the Iranian nuclear issue and stated that GCC countries’ relations with Iran will be determined by the nuclear talks going on in Vienna. Dr. Pradhan highlighted that revival of talks on the Iranian nuclear deal is also a crucial development and stated that the Iranian insistence on removal of sanctions and American pressure on Iran to abide by JCPOA has led to the current stalemate.

    The talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia with the mediation by Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mustafa Al Kadhimi, is another major development and it has the potential to change the geopolitics of the region. Though the talks are in the early stage, the reconciliatory approach shown by both the parties will help in de-escalating tension within the region in the short and long term. With regard to Yemen, Dr. Pradhan stated that with the increasing power of Houthis, the threat to international shipping lines particularly in the Red Sea and Strait of Bab El Mandab has become a cause of concern. The condition in Yemen has provided a conducive environment for the terror groups as the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has consolidated its position in the southern parts and the ISIS has also been trying to gain a foothold in the country. He concluded by saying that despite some constructive efforts by the countries to establish peace and stability, the situation in the region remains fragile.

    Dr. S. Samuel C. Rajiv in his presentation on India-Israel relations drew attention to the transformation of ties in the past few years, with political ballast adding robustness to the strength of the relationship. This has specifically been so after the historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2017. In 2021, both the countries shared high level visits including that of Air Chief Marshal, RKS Bhadauria (August 2021), External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar (October 2021) and Army Chief General Mukund Naravane (November 2021). This has translated into greater synergies between the two countries. According to Dr. Rajiv, political interactions have continued and defence interactions have strengthened.  During the 15th JWG on defence cooperation in October 2021 in Tel Aviv, both sides agreed to set up a Sub Working Group (SWG) on Defence Industry Cooperation. 

    He also highlighted the significant policy decisions taken by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to increase defence indigenisation and noted that, going forward, India is aiming to reduce the volume of defence imports as well as increase its defence exports. As per SIPRI Trend Indicator Values (TIV), India imported US$ 36 billion during 2010-2020, 8 percent of which was from Israel, while the country’s defence exports in 2020 stood at over US$ 1 billion. India aims to reach a target of US$ 5 billion of defence exports in the next five years. In order to add a fillip to domestic defence production, two defence industrial corridors are being set up and exclusive budgets have been earmarked for domestic capital expenditure. Along with this, a defence indigenisation portal (Srijan Portal) has been started. Changes in the FDI policy, among others, is an important opportunity for the Israeli industry to more fully participate in fulfilling the requirements of the Indian armed forces. 

    While cooperation in other sectors like homeland security and agriculture is coming on apace, Dr. Rajiv noted that an important arena of future growth in bilateral ties could occur from cooperation in the science and technology and innovation sphere. While Israel is acknowledged as a world leader in innovation, the Indian innovation ecosystem is also growing by leaps and bounds. During 2021 itself, over 40 Indian Start-Ups reached the unicorn status (valuation of US$ 1 billion). He concluded by saying that India and Israel can explore bilateral, trilateral (with the UAE) and quadrilateral (with the US and UAE) projects in this sphere. 

    Prof. Uzi Rubinstated that until recently it was believed that the Missile is the decisive strategic disrupter in the region and the UAVs have been used as supportive weapons. But this understanding has changed over time with UAVs being considered at par with strategic disruptors such as missiles. He gave a broader classification of UAVs wherein, he divided it in three categories, namely reconnaissance UAVs used for intelligence gathering (Hermes 900), Combat UAVs (Reaper) and Suicide (Kamikaze) UAVs. He also elaborated on how these different kinds of UAVs were previously used in the region as secondary options in comparison to missiles by Turkey and other countries. He further said that Iran providing UAVs to its proxies in the region such as Houthis in Yemen, militias in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, has challenged the regional security situation. In the past few months, Iran has threatened the international maritime routes through UAV strikes and has targeted Israeli ships in the Gulf multiple times.   

    He elaborated on the challenges in combating UAVs. Firstly, due to their small size they are hard to detect by radar. Also, suicide UAVs fly close to the ground and 'pop up' only when close to the target. Secondly, they are highly stealthy due to the composite materials used in making them. Thirdly, the powering of UAVs by small piston engines imparts them a negligible heat signature. Lastly, they can be programmed to follow a roundabout trajectory and attack unexpectedly.

    He shared the Saudi experience of dealing with the UAV threat and said that Saudi Arabia is targeted by UAVs from Yemen. It receives 40-50 UAV strikes per month and is combating them through ground-based air defence (Patriot Missile) and F-15s launched air to air missiles. Thereafter, he shared Russian experiences in dealing with UAV threats. The two permanent Russian bases (Hmeimim Air Base and Tartus Naval Base) in Syria have regularly been targeted by the rebels through UAVs. To deal with these strikes, Russia has re-tuned its Radars. It has deployed "soft" defence belt of GPS and Glonass jammers along with EW Radio communication jammer system. It has also deployed SA 22 Panzir systems to provide "hard" defence. 

    In his view, to deal with the danger of UAV threats, one needs to deploy a 360 degree early warning fence against very low flying targets. There is also a need to integrate soft and hard defence systems. To deal with UAV threats Israel has unveiled Sky Dew Early warning system and Scorpius advance ECM. He concluded his presentation by saying that "any future military action in the region will be a missile and UAV war". 

    In the Closing session, Maj. Gen. Dr. Bipin Bakshi, Deputy Director General MP-IDSA, apprised the participants about the various initiatives which include a start-up challenge where local industries are being roped in, especially in the last five years, to produce flight as well as land based robotic devices capable of carrying cameras and diffuse bombs. These industries are also being provided seed funding. He emphasised that India and Israel have been natural allies and enjoy mutual friendship with the US, Bahrain and UAE. The two countries have shared concerns of terrorism and issues of regional security. He mentioned that the US is making attempts to counter China and stressing on the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy since a long time, in the light of China posing a hybrid threat using criminal groups as a front by the government. He drew attention to the collaboration between India and Israel in this complex environment. Furthermore, he highlighted that no regional security construct could be envisioned without contemplating on the US and China strategic competition particularly in the South and West Asian region.

    Col. Dr. Eran Lerman summed up by pointing out three major developments. Firstly, the changes in Afghanistan and implications for the US, that shall affect the Middle East and the region surrounding India. Secondly, the idea of western Quad to complement the eastern Quad is another crucial geopolitical development.  Dr. Lerman stated this will bring together India, the US, Israel and the UAE, covering the spectrum of religious identity within the scope of like-mindedness. Thirdly, he mentioned that Iran is an ultimate challenge for Israel in maintaining stability in the region.