In its final lap, the Trump administration was even stranger than anyone thought. Even as Marine One, the helicopter used to ferry the President of the United States, was getting ready for the final goodbye, it seemed that the nail was being hammered down firmly on a policy that — unlike others — has remained consistent in a unruly presidency.
In the last month left of the Trump Presidency, it seemed that the mercurial president — or rather his administration — did some heavy lifting to make sure that anyone new in the hot seat at the Oval office would find it difficult to turn the cross hairs away from target one — the People’s Republic of China.
Trump Admin’s Last Attempt At Keeping China In Check
On 19 January, a day before Inauguration Day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “I have determined that the PRC [People’s Republic of China], under the direction and control of the CCP [Chinese Communist party], has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”
The crimes included arbitrary imprisonment, forced sterilisation, forced labour, among other offences. Such determinations have in the past led to sanctions for instance against Sudan, or terrorist-supporting entities.
Essentially it lays the ground for possible (further) sanctions against China on these grounds.
The thing is the US has already sanctioned entities and officials in Xinjiang on the basis of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in July 2020. In fact, there are a range of sanctions on the Xinjiang issue, including a Supply Chain Advisory which is a warning to US businesses not to engage with entities who are either engaged or enabling human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Therefore, this last shot over the bows, a day before the administration was to close its boxes and leave, seems strange.
Declassification Of A Secret Strategy
Then there was the hastily declassified Secret Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2018, on 5 January 2021, which laid out in great detail the defence policy of the US, primarily against China. That document made it clear that the US intended to push back against China across the world, from mere competition to possible outright conflict. It also sees Delhi as a ‘security coordinator’ for South Asia — clearly where the intention is to keep China out — and a valuable bulwark against Beijing’s expansionist designs in the region.
Declassification of sensitive documents are governed by Executive Order 13526 which also notes that the ‘secret’ status presumably accorded to this document can be given only by the president, a vice president, or any designated top official. In general, a document may be declassified anywhere from ten to twenty five years from the time it was originally marked — but certainly not in three years.
Someone somewhere wanted continuity on the policy on China.
Once the document is out in public, walking back is going to be difficult in the extreme. That someone, or body of people, were clearly those who felt very strongly and were convinced about the future threat from China.
The Curious Case Of Chinese Company ‘Skyrizon’
Then on 14 January 2021, just a week before the change of administration, the Department of Commerce designated the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to the Entity List and more interestingly, also Chinese company Skyrizon to the Military End-User (MEU) List.
The CNOOC is China’s largest off shore drilling company as can be seen from its Annual Report, which shows healthy profits and drilling operations across the world. It has however seen directed fire for its activities in the South China Sea, where it has been classified as a ‘bully’, and drilling activities as close as within 200 miles of Vietnam and the Philippines. The sanctions will undoubtedly hit its operations in limiting the highly sophisticated technology that the company sources from outside.
The second case is even more interesting.
Skyrizon is spearheaded by Wang Jing, a Chinese tycoon whose interests seem to coincide with that of the People’s Liberation Army, and has been ‘of interest’ to the US, since his company tried to acquire Ukraine’s military engine maker Motor Sich in 2017.
The core technology of aircraft engine manufacture is closely guarded, even in the field of civil aviation, with only a handful at the top. Motor Sich has an array of engine tech on its workbench even while Beijing’s Comac with its C919 and Avic with its own prototype, have been less than successful in breaking into the field. The secrecy in military aircraft engines is about a hundred times more, and the US has been trying to get alternative buyers for the Ukrainian company, reportedly also including Eric Prince, of security contractor Blackwater. Skyrizon has since filed an arbitration case against Kiev, after it took measures to block the sale. Beijing is not letting go, and neither is the US.
For India, Good News And A Good Buy
In Delhi, all of this is good news. This is not the time to wish or imagine that US actions will bring China into a cooperative international system, as some Democrats may continue to imagine. Beijing has more than indicated that it doesn’t need to be brought in. It’s already there, and now engaged in changing around the building blocks.
These very last minute efforts to keep the focus on China indicates that there is awareness within US power corridors of the continuing threat from China, and the importance of India’s ability to stand up to it.
Delhi may not yet want to openly acknowledge this, but it would do well to build its case for strengthening its capabilities, by making a strong bid for the Ukrainian company, even in a Joint Venture mode. The strategic value of the company is immense for Delhi which has been struggling to get its own jet engine technology.
The Kaveri engine is still in dire straits. It has also failed to get tech transfer for the engine powering the Rafale from engine manufacturer Safran. There’s no time to lose in a move that should shore up Indo-US trust, significantly increase our defence base, and at the same time, give one in the eye to Beijing. That is a combination that is simply irresistible.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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