This week’s Asia Review zones in on how Russia’s disruptive behavior in Europe—whether through a puppet leader or direct military pressure—stands to perturb already complicated geopolitical calculi of key Asia-Pacific powers. It looks at how New Delhi’s tightrope act between Moscow and Washington could be disrupted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opaque moves, how South Korean and Thai newspapers have reacted to the situation along the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Poland borders, and Russian arms exports in the Asia-Pacific. Plus: the Russia-Taliban relationship and, as a way of cautioning against falsely inferring trends in geopolitics and everyday life alike, a note on Simpson’s paradox in statistics.
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DRI Asia Review
November 26, 2021dri.thediplomat.com
Russian Games
and the Asia-Pacific
India’s tightrope act between Moscow and Washington
South Korean and Thai newspapers on developments in Europe
Russian arms sales in the Asia-Pacific
Putin’s fling with the Taliban
Simpson’s paradox

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s Asia Review zones in on how Russia’s disruptive behavior in Europe—whether through a puppet leader or direct military pressure—stands to perturb already complicated geopolitical calculi of key Asia-Pacific powers. It looks at how New Delhi’s tightrope act between Moscow and Washington could be disrupted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s opaque moves, how South Korean and Thai newspapers have reacted to the situation along the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Poland borders, and Russian arms exports in the Asia-Pacific. Plus: the Russia-Taliban relationship and, as a way of cautioning against falsely inferring trends in geopolitics and everyday life alike, a note on Simpson’s paradox in statistics.

THE BIG ONE

Putin Makes Matters in the Indo-Pacific Murky—By Terrifying Europe
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Russian President Vladimir Putin before their meeting in New Delhi, October 5, 2018.
— AP Photo, Manish Swarup

Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to arrive in New Delhi early next month to attend the annual India-Russia summit to be held on December 6. Last year—for the first time in two decades—the summit was cancelled, which both Indian and Russian officials clarified was solely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s summit is unlike any other, as news reports indicate that it is likely to be held alongside the maiden “2+2” defense and foreign ministerial dialogue between the two countries. (The two-plus-two format has also emerged as a key mechanism when it comes to New Delhi’s interaction with other Quad members.)

Meanwhile, reports indicate that India and Russia are close to concluding a $681 million deal to jointly manufacture AK-203 rifles with India’s Defence Acquisition Council clearing the long-pending proposal on November 23. Coincidentally, the delivery of the first of the five regiments of the Russian S-400 air defense system —purchased by India in 2018 for approximately $5.5 billion, and cause of considerable unease in Washington—began earlier this month and is expected (according to some news reports) to be complete around the time of Putin’s visit.

The summit, set to significantly bolster India-Russia defense ties, comes after New Delhi and Washington held the third edition of 2+2 ministerial dialogue in October last year where both sides reiterated their commitment to “deepening bilateral defence consultations and collaborations” and reiterated their commitment to a “free, open, inclusive, peace and prosperous Indo-Pacific built on a rules-based order.” News reports have suggested that both sides are likely to hold another edition of the joint foreign and defense ministers’ dialogue in December.

Research indicates that New Delhi has been consistently working towards diversifying its defense partners, inorder to reduce arms dependence on any one country. A part of this effort has been through expanding defense cooperation with the United States, which arguably reached its zenith under the former Trump administration when both sides signed key weapons deals. This falls in line with the Modi government’s larger foreign policy orientation of “convergence with many, but congruence with none.” India’s tightrope act between Washington and Moscow is not new, but worsening Russia-U.S. relations amid what many hail as a "new cold war” complicates matters not only for India, but other regional actors looking to placate all global power centers.

The re-emergence of the Russia-Ukraine tensions and renewed apprehensions about a possible Russian thrust into Ukraine, as Kremlin continues its military buildup along that country’s border, could make New Delhi’s precarious position worse.

Although Russia has dismissed fears about a Russian thrust into Ukraine as a “hollow and unfounded attempt to incite tensions,” Washington and its European partners are visibly alarmed; NATO has cautioned Moscow against “any further provocation or aggressive actions.” Beyond obviously complicating the already fraught Russia-U.S. relationship and further entrenching the current impasse in Europe-Russia relations, this development has far-reaching effects beyond Russia’s immediate neighborhood.

For starters, it further complicates New Delhi’s already slim chances of receiving a waiver for sanctions through the United States’ Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Washington has still not adjudicated the matter when it comes to India’s purchase of the S-400 missile batteries. However, in the hypothetical scenario of Kremlin further increasing military pressure on Ukraine or elsewhere in its European periphery—and especially if Putin’s muscle-flexing ends up with an evident landgrab—it is quite unlikely that India will receive the waiver it desires, given the domestic political costs the Biden administration could incur from such an action as well as further, bipartisan, hardening of views about Russia in Washington. Such circumstances and scenarios will also concern other countries like Vietnam and Indonesia which have defense trade with both Russia and the United States.

Back in 2014, India’s relative silence and abstention from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity, co-sponsored by the U.S., was interpreted by some as New Delhi’s “tacit endorsement” of Russian action. More recently, last year, India along with 22 other countries, including Russia, voted against a resolution, sponsored by Ukraine, condemning human rights violation in Crimea. This serves as a reminder that despite the changed regional geopolitical environment, Russia continues to be tremendously important in India’s larger strategic calculations despite fervent wishes of many in Washington and other allied capitals.

And in this, India is not alone. Vietnam, another Russian partner with close ties dating back to the Cold War, has bolstered defense ties with Russia, despite the threat of Washington’s sanctions. As Kremlin refocuses its attention towards Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific in general (despite eschewing the term), developments in Europe cannot be viewed in isolation. They will undoubtedly cast a shadow on the nascent geopolitical realignments in the Indo-Pacific.

BABEL

South Korean and Thai Newspapers on Russia and Europe
U.S. Secretary of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin welcomes Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov at the Pentagon, November 18, 2021.
— AP Photo, Manuel Balce Ceneta

Russian games in Europe are going far from unnoticed in Southeast and East Asia. On November 22, South Korean daily Dong-a Ilbo carried an article—written by the newspaper’s correspondent in New York— on the situation along Ukraine’s border where Russian forces have amassed in large numbers, leading Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal to ask for NATO for help (through a press interview) on November 25. The South Korean newspaper drew from a Bloomberg report and noted: “After the forcible annexation of Crimea in 2014, fear of war in the region has once again escalated in this area, and conflicts between Western allies and Russia are spiralling out of control.”

But recent Russian pressure tactics have not been limited to Ukraine. Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused Putin of being the “mastermind” behind the migrant crisis on his country’s border with Belarus, whose leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is widely believed to be the Kremlin’s puppet. Reporting on the developments in the Belarus-Poland border on November 20, leading Thai newspaper Thai Rath quoted a BBC interview of Lukashenko where he admitted that the European Union may indeed be the final destination of refugees flowing from his country into Poland. Thai Rath quoted a striking statement from the Belarusian autocrat’s BBC interview, where Lukashenko admitted that his army could be abetting the migrant flow into the European Union. “I think it is highly possible. We are Slavic. We have a heart. Our army knows that refugees are going to Germany,” he said.

DRI Future Tense

Chinese Nuclear Weapons: A View from Beijing

Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy Senior Fellow Tong Zhao discusses drivers behind China's nuclear weapons expansion, how Beijing perceives the international strategic environment, China's position on arms control, and much more in the latest episode of DRI Future Tense.

Listen to the podcast

CHARTED WATERS

Russian Arms Sales in the Asia-Pacific
Russian arms sales, 2015-2020.
— SIPRI Arms Transfer Database. Graphics: DRI

FROM OUR STABLE

Pragmatic Drivers of the Russia-Taliban Relationship
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, center, pose for photograph with the special envoys from United States, Russia and China, prior to a meeting on Afghanistan, in Islamabad, November 11, 2021.
— Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs via AP

After the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul in August this year, Russia has been one of the few countries which has supported the group’s demand to unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets. On several occasions, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, has praised the Taliban, even claiming that the country seems “safer” under their rule than under ousted President Ashraf Ghani. Although Russia has not withdrawn the official label of the Taliban as a terrorist organization and has withheld recognition of their government, it has led calls for resumption of international aid to Afghanistan. In fact, Russia— along with China and Pakistan – has even indicated its willingness to provide humanitarian aid and economic support to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Experts DRI consulted for the its latest monthly report “Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0: International Security and Geopolitical Implications”—the second of a two-part series on Afghanistan and the Taliban—assess that the Kremlin may push for diplomatic recognition of the religious extremist group in the future, but not immediately.

The report provides a comprehensive account of how Russia’s relationship with the Taliban has thawed over more than a decade, when both sides found common purpose in opposing U.S. and allied presence on Afghan soil. Over the past decade, Russia has pursued diplomatic means to interact with the Taliban at a bilateral level. This has allowed Russia to position itself well to play a leading role in the global community’s efforts to make sense of the changed geopolitical reality in Afghanistan. Based on extensive in-house research and expert consultations, the report probes the future trajectory and drivers of the Kremlin’s engagement with the Taliban.

Read an excerpt

Access the report

DRI TRENDLINES

Here Be Dragons? Pakistan's Economy and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive infrastructure, connectivity, and investment initiative the Chinese government announced in 2013 that aims to link China with key regions around the world through a network of strategically-important facilities and local capacity building. China has described BRI as a development and economic self-reliance opportunity for other countries and has marketed it as a "win-win" proposition. In this edition of DRI Trendlines, we examine various streams of data and zone in on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor within the overall context of Pakistan’s economy, and to understand it better, also visualize the evolution of BRI projects in, and economies of, four other participating countries: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.

Read excerpt

Access report here

DIGESTIF

Simpson’s Paradox
Simpson's paradox in action: without disaggregation, there is a negative association between x and y, but when disaggregated into group 1 and group 2, the association reverses and become positive.
— DRI

Simpson’s paradox is a phenomenon that demonstrates how easily statistics can be used to fool the average Joe when it comes to trends between two or more variables. It is what happens when several groups, taken together, show a certain trend, but when considered individually, each group shows the opposite of that trend. In other words, aggregation reverses the trend.

The paradox shows how easy it is to draw false conclusions when it comes to trends from data especially if “hidden” or confounding variables aren’t accounted for, or when the assumptions made to calculate the associations are false. If these “lurking” variables are left unaccounted for, it can severely change or even completely reverse the observed relationship as compared to the true relationship, if one were to include them.

This real-world phenomenon can be seen in the landmark paper which investigates claims of sex bias in graduate school admissions in the fall of 1973 at University of California Berkeley, a public university in California. (For a summary of the paper, see here.) Based on the overall admission data of that year, some claimed that authorities who determined graduate school admissions in Berkeley were biased against women. The data apparently showed that around 35 percent of female applicants were admitted that year, in contrast to 44 percent of men who applied to Berkeley’s graduate programs. The catch, however, is that one assumes implicitly— when comparing solely the average rate of admittance— that both women and men are equally likely to apply across courses and subjects.

When statistician Peter Bickel and others disaggregated the data across departments (which is reasonable since each department autonomously admits applicants) they stumbled upon the paradox: four out of six departments actually admitted more women than men! In this case, the confounding or “lurking” variable causing the paradox was that in general, women were more likely than men to apply to programs that had a generally lower admission rate (admission rate is the ratio of number of people accepted to the number of applicants). For example, around two percent of applicants to mechanical engineering graduate programs were women, but around thirty-three percent of applicants to English were women: The English department had a much lower admission rate than mechanical engineering.

DRI’s Research Analysts Rushali Saha and Malvika Rajeev and Director of Research Abhijnan Rej contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translations of South Korean and Thai media articles were provided by in-house linguists.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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