Large parts of the world are still reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus, with renewed lockdowns in effect in many places. With every stricken country focused on tackling its COVID-19 crisis, there is little international generosity in donating large quantities of medicines or vaccines when demand for them is sky-high.
So, when India in recent days delivered millions of COVID-19 vaccines as gifts to countries in the Indian Ocean region, it attracted international attention.
More than five million Indian-made vaccines were airlifted last week to countries extending from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Mauritius and the Seychelles. And millions of more free vaccines are on their way this week.
The scale of India’s vaccine gifts is unrivaled. No other country has delivered millions of free vaccines to other nations — not even China, which has pursued its own vaccine diplomacy in a bid to repair the damage to its global image from the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Chinese soil. The gifts help to highlight India’s enormous vaccine-manufacturing capacity.
What stands out the most about India’s humanitarian gesture is that it was launched just four days after the country began vaccinating its own citizens, starting with health-care workers. On receiving the first shipment of Indian vaccines, the prime minister of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan called it “altruism” that “precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs.” The overseas vaccine shipments extend from India’s ambitious plan to inoculate its huge 1.3 billion population in one of the world’s biggest COVID-19 vaccination drives.
India’s free-vaccine diplomacy, however, has been driven by more than altruism. There are geopolitical considerations at play, including building goodwill and influence and countering China’s growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region. Supplying free vaccines to combat a raging pandemic also seems a better choice for New Delhi than providing direct aid in another form.
One of India’s strengths is that it supplies more than 60% of the world’s vaccines against various diseases. Now it is leveraging that manufacturing heft by embarking on what has been billed as humanitarian diplomacy — the supply of free vaccines to countries in its extended neighborhood.
Its extensive vaccine-manufacturing infrastructure also explains why India, as research by Fitch Solutions suggests, will be able to inoculate most of its vulnerable citizens such as health-care workers and the elderly by mid-2021 — ahead of the much-smaller South Korea, for example.
India already has agreed to supply more than one billion coronavirus vaccines to various countries and to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative aimed at poorer countries. India is currently manufacturing two vaccines — the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, known in India as Covishield, and Covaxin, developed by the Indian pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech. Three other Indian companies are close to wrapping up development of their own vaccines.
Before India granted emergency approval to Covishield and Covaxin in early January, the privately-owned Serum Institute of India (SII) — the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume and the leading production partner of AstraZeneca-Oxford — had already manufactured and stocked between 70 to 80 million Covishield doses. This large stockpile has meant that India has enough vaccines to share with other countries.
Furthermore, India’s rapidly falling coronavirus infections have given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government greater room to advance vaccine diplomacy. Daily new cases in India — a distant second to the United States in aggregate infections — have dramatically declined since last fall.
The international spotlight on the competitive vaccine offerings of the United States, Britain, Russia and China has helped obscure India’s role. Since the pandemic began, India has quietly donated or commercially exported crucial items that have encountered massive demand surges, such as COVID-19 test kits, personal protection equipment and medicines for coronavirus symptoms. India, the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs, shipped 50 million tablets of hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. last spring at then-American President Donald Trump’s request.
China, while exploiting its pharmaceutical clout for commercial ends throughout the pandemic, has thus far announced only modest vaccine donations. Its aggressive push to sell vaccines to developing nations, however, has suffered a setback after its leading inoculation candidate turned out to just 50% effective in late-stage trials in Brazil. Indeed, Brazil has turned to India, importing two million vaccines in recent days.
Against this background, will India’s vaccine diplomacy tangibly aid its foreign-policy interests? As more than 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops remain locked in a months-long Himalayan military standoff, India feels increasingly hemmed in by the expanding Chinese influence in its neighborhood.
India is hoping that, in contrast to the coronavirus’s indelible association with China as the country of origin, it will be remembered for helping many of its neighbors to immunize the vulnerable segments of their populations against the disease.
Still, with China spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi can scarcely reverse its eroding regional clout with just the goodwill generated from its large vaccine donations. India needs to do a lot more on a sustained basis. This demands it shed its intrinsic diffidence in favor of proactive diplomacy.
In fact, there is the question of whether India will bear the financial burden of supplying more free coronavirus vaccines to neighboring countries beyond the initial shipments. The issue whether such vaccines will be free for all of India’s own citizens has yet to be settled.
India’s large overseas shipments, however, belie the current Western narrative that wealthy nations are monopolizing the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and fueling a widening gap in access around the world. As with the shots against many other diseases, from polio and pneumonia to meningitis and measles, India is likely to be the largest and most-affordable source of COVID-19 vaccines, especially as new inoculation candidates enter into Indian production after approval.
In fact, the paradox is that many wealthy countries, especially in the European Union, have been slow to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, making India’s robust vaccine industry stand out as a model.
The Indian industry’s role will be central to ending the pandemic because only India has the vast infrastructure at present to meet the global vaccine demand. However, the extensive damage and five deaths from last week’s major fire at a new building at the SII campus were a reminder that, at a time when many low- and middle-income countries are depending on Indian production, unforeseen events could potentially disrupt supply of essential vaccines.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime Japan Times contributor, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
President Joe Biden faces a slew of important foreign policy challenges. But with India, he has a historic opportunity to forge a strategic alliance to help build a stable balance of power in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
India has been a bright spot in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Continuing a process set in motion by President Bill Clinton during the 1990s and accelerated by every succeeding administration, U.S.-India relations thrived during Donald Trump’s presidency. Not surprisingly, there is strong bipartisan support in both Washington and New Delhi for a closer partnership under Biden.
The Trump administration’s now-declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” gives India pride of place in American strategy. “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” it states. The framework underlines the U.S. objective to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” in the Indo-Pacific and as America’s major defense partner.
Trump’s standalone trip to India last year underscored how the expanding strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. The visit is remembered by many Indians for Trump’s famous words at a huge rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Today, the United States is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve: co-opting India in a “soft alliance” built not on formal security obligations but on common interests. U.S. officials recognize that such an arrangement will bear little resemblance to the patron-client framework that was established in Asia during the Cold War, with Washington as the “hub” and treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work with India today, for the simple reason that a country so large, especially one that values its strategic autonomy, cannot become another Japan or South Korea to the U.S. As then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stressed during a visit to New Delhi in October, the U.S. is seeking “not an alliance on the postwar model but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.”
China’s aggressive expansionism has helped drive India’s shift toward closer strategic collaboration with the U.S. A major turning point was China’s decision last spring to stealthily occupy mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the borderlands of the northernmost Indian region of Ladakh. That move triggered the deadliest clash along the two countries’ disputed border in decades, and 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops are still locked in a military standoff.
The depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy.
Against this background, U.S.-India ties will remain close. However, the depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy. Biden has yet to clearly enunciate his approach toward Beijing or his overall Asia policy. If anything, Biden has fueled uncertainty over whether his administration will continue with Trump’s strategy, including by refraining from using the term, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” coining a new phrase instead: a “Secure and Prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He has made no mention thus far of the Quad, which holds the promise of becoming a formal security arrangement. Biden, however, has done well to name the veteran Asia hand Kurt Campbell to the newly created position of Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council.
Will Biden spurn the Trump administration’s approach and seek to reset U.S. policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific? A softer U.S. approach toward Beijing is unlikely to help build the long-sought soft alliance with India. Given the bipartisan U.S. consensus and some of his own national security appointments, it is doubtful that Biden could return to the more-indulgent approach to China of the Obama administration, when Beijing engaged in mostly cost-free expansionism, including redrawing the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.
To be sure, there are also other issues, including Pakistan and human rights, that could impede progress toward India’s full involvement in the U.S.-led security architecture. A decision to restore U.S. security aid to Pakistan, for example, would set off alarm bells in New Delhi, as it would relieve pressure on Pakistan to curb its well-documented support for terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, and unwittingly contribute to the growing China-Pakistan axis against India.
India’s domestic politics mirrors that of the U.S. in terms of hardened polarization, with a widening divide between liberals and conservatives. Trump refrained from commenting on contentious developments in India so as not to be seen as wading into the country’s domestic politics. But Biden has pledged a renewed U.S. focus on promotion of liberal values and human rights. In his presidential campaign, Biden criticized the Modi government’s suppression of dissent in the Muslim-majority territory of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as a new Indian law to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees that fled religious persecution in the three neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Critics have branded that law anti-Muslim. If the Biden administration were to be openly critical of such issues, it might embolden Modi’s critics while turning Indian public opinion against a closer partnership with Washington.
However, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, are likely to pursue a pragmatic approach that prioritizes deeper engagement with India. This will include clinching a much-sought-after trade deal with India, whose huge market is an increasingly powerful magnet for U.S. businesses; forging a partnership with New Delhi on climate change; and expanding defense ties. Such a balanced approach is appropriate, for no relationship between any two democracies is as important in today’s changing world than the one between the U.S. and India.
Brahma Chellaney is a geo-strategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).
At 78, Joe Biden is the oldest president in US history to assume office. The unprecedented security at his inauguration, which included neutralising any possible insider threat from National Guardsmen and police officers at the ceremony, underscored the new president’s challenges. Biden has come to power with about one-third of the American voters believing he stole the election, with the US Congress almost evenly divided between the two parties, and with America reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus.
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge relates to the world’s economic and geopolitical hub— the Indo-Pacific region, which unites the Indian and Pacific oceans. An expansionist China is injecting greater instability and tensions in the Indo-Pacific through its territorial and maritime revisionism and heavy-handed use of economic and military power.
The increasingly polarised and virulent US politics, however, will likely weigh down Biden’s agenda. Before the election, according to one survey, nearly 90 per cent of supporters of Biden and his rival Donald Trump believed that the opponent’s victory would bring lasting harm to America.
Indeed, Trump left office refusing to concede the election. He repeatedly alleged that the election was marred by fraud and irregularities and thus illegitimate. To be sure, Trump’s 2016 election victory was never accepted by many prominent Democrats, who sought to delegitimise his presidency by spinning a tale of his “collusion” with Russia. A partisan national media served as an echo chamber for the Russia-collusion story. Today, the base of the Republican Party reveres Trump even in defeat.
Biden has talked about unifying a divided America. But he has taken little concrete action thus far in that direction.
It will not be easy to heal the wounds after the recent developments, including the Trump-supporting mob’s storming of the US Capitol, the rushed second impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives after just a four-hour debate, and Big Tech’s open display of its political leanings by targeting Trump and his supporters and by shutting down Twitter’s rapidly growing rival, Parler. After being kicked off US servers, Parler has been forced to turn to a Russian firm that routes internet traffic.
As William Barr, who served as the US attorney general until December 2020, has warned, “I think that when you start suppressing free speech, when people lose confidence in the media, and also when they lose faith in the integrity of elections, you’re going to have some people resort to violence.” Anger has deepened among conservatives, especially among many of the 74 million who voted for Trump and whose belief in a stolen election is now etched in their psyches.
The US is being torn apart by hyper-partisan politics. Tolerance for opposing views is increasingly in short supply. In this environment, fake news, conspiracy theories, fear-mongering and alternative narratives thrive. What keeps the US strong, though, is institutional resilience. Hardened polarisation hasn’t really dented national institutions, which remain by and large effective in helping to insulate the country’s economy and security from the effects of partisan politics.
Yet, there is a high risk that, like his predecessor, Biden in office could become an increasingly polarising figure, with Americans either loving or loathing him. Trump’s supporters already hate Biden. In fact, just as Democrats spent four years seeking to tar Trump with a Russia-collusion story, hardcore conservatives are already calling Biden the “Manchurian candidate” who, to quote the prominent right-wing commentator Mark Levin, was “bought and paid for by China.”
To compound matters, the new president’s decades-long political career shows that he has no firm convictions. Indeed, during the presidential election campaign, Biden made a habit of reversing his positions on major policy issues. Flip-flops are to Biden what egomania was to Trump as president.
FOREIGN POLICY UNDER BIDEN
Biden says he intends to reshape US foreign policy, including by shoring up alliances and by rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. But the “one America, two nations” problem at home could impinge on Biden’s foreign-policy agenda, as it did on Trump’s. Trump pursued a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and unexpected resort to force, as in early 2020 when the US assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s commando Quds Force. Trump’s critics rejoiced over Soleimani’s killing because they had been slamming his foreign-policy approach of relying largely on economic levers by rebuffing the preference of the US “deep state” for periodically employing military force to assert American power.
Trump, who railed against “endless wars,” was the first US president since Jimmy Carter not to start a new war. Trump ended the CIA’s large covert operation in Syria and worked to bring back home US troops from various theatres of conflict. But his itch to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan led him to cut a deal with the terrorist Taliban, handing Pakistan a major victory. Consequently, the old US-Pakistan-Taliban alliance is back in play in Afghanistan, with Washington’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban spawning an escalating wave of targeted killings.
Against this background, how will Biden’s foreign policy be different? Biden has promised to pursue a more predictable and multilateral approach and to help unite allies in concerted action on issues ranging from climate change to Russia and China.
But few seem to clearly know Biden’s thinking on major geostrategic issues.
In the presidential campaign, Biden’s theme essentially was that he wasn’t Trump. Biden made the election a referendum on the incumbent rather than a choice. Yet, without having a political base or articulating a clear vision, Biden won. In victory, the Democrats are trying to figure out what they stand for as a party. But the division between progressives and establishment forces runs deep in the party.
One thing seems certain: Despite Biden’s multilateralism rhetoric, he is likely to be more interventionist than Trump. In fact, most members of Biden’s national security team are considered “liberal interventionists,” or hawks on the left. It was the liberal interventionists who, under President Barack Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Biden’s protégé and now Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, supported the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya, both of which turned the once-stable countries into failed states. Blinken hailed America’s occupation of Iraq as a success, claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. As his critics point out, there isn’t a war that Blinken hasn’t loved.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, supported supplying anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and President Trump finally delivered.
On China, however, the otherwise hawkish Sullivan has been an advocate of a conciliatory approach. For example, during a 2017 lecture he delivered on behalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Sullivan said foreign policy expert Owen Harries was “right” to warn that “containment” is a self-defeating policy, much like acquiescence. “We need to strike a middle course—one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order,” Sullivan declared. He said the China policy needs to be about more than just bilateral ties, “it needs to be about our ties to the region that create an environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive sum Chinese rise.”
More recently, Sullivan co-authored an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs (September/October 2019) with Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Indo-Pacific coordinator”—a new position inside the National Security Council. The essay argued for managed coexistence with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential US partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
The essay pushed for managed coexistence in these words; “Advocates of neo-containment tend to see any call for managed coexistence as an argument for a version of the grand bargain; advocates of a grand bargain tend to see any suggestion of sustained competition as a case for a version of containment. That divide obscures a course between these extremes—one that is not premised on Chinese capitulation or on U.S.-Chinese condominium.” According to it, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” But the key, it said, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
In essence, the essay implicitly sought a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements, with the rest of the world having to adjust to it. By suggesting China’s challenge and threat could no longer be addressed by the US alone, the essay, in addition to advocating the strengthening of US alliances, said that a US partnership with Beijing was indispensable.
The essay actually stood out for failing to look ahead. It listed four hot spots in the Indo-Pacific region but not the Himalayas, now the most dangerous flashpoint. In fact, it made no mention of India or the Quad or America’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy or economic decoupling. If anything, the essay reflected the Kissingerian thinking still prevailing in some US policy circles.
A former Chinese vice foreign minister’s call in a November 2020 New York Times op-ed for “cooperative competition” between the US and China sounded a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea proposed by Campbell and Sullivan in their essay, with both concepts implying a G2-style condominium. The ex-vice foreign minister, Fu Ying, wrote in her op-ed: “It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The Trump administration defined the relationship with Beijing as pitting the US in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If Biden pursued US cooperation with China, it would help strengthen the CCP internally and externally.
Managed coexistence would allow China to manage the bilateral relationship largely on its terms, including protecting the CCP’s primacy. When Fu called for “addressing each other’s concerns” to build cooperative competition, she meant, as she herself put it, that the “United States should be respectful of China’s sense of national unity and avoid challenging China on the issue of Taiwan or by meddling in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea.” Addressing each other’s concerns also implies that the US must respect the fact, as Fu said, that China has a “different political system.” China cannot, and will not, change because, without ultra-nationalism as the CCP’s legitimating credo and without the Xi Jinping regime’s aggressive expansionism, the country’s political system would unravel.
Biden is unlike the four most recent US presidents: He has deep ties to the Washington establishment, including the lobbying industry, from his 44 years in the Senate and as vice president. No sooner had the media declared him the election winner than he named at least 40 current and former registered lobbyists to his transition team.
Biden, backed by Big Money, Big Tech and Big Media, was Wall Street’s favoured candidate in the election. But, thanks to US corporate greed, Wall Street also remains China’s powerful ally.
Furthermore, the national security team Biden has chosen isn’t free of the Cold War thinking that sees Russia as the main foe. Such thinking plays into China’s hands. Russia and China, as geographically proximate nations, have always been suspicious of each other’s intentions as they compete for geopolitical influence. But US policy, including sanctions against Russia, have brought two natural strategic competitors into ever-closer alignment.
More fundamentally, an interventionist foreign policy under Biden on issues other than China will raise concerns over the renewed influence of the so-called US deep state, which is centred in security and intelligence agencies. Many Republicans believed the deep state worked hard to topple Trump from power. Former Attorney General Barr publicly identified one such rogue actor—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A “wilful if small” group at the FBI used the Russia-collusion claim to try and “topple an administration,” Barr said in an interview in December.
A NEW INDO-PACIFIC POLICY
The imperative in the Indo-Pacific is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded countries linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium. The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016 and subsequently became the basis of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy after Trump was elected president.
Biden has yet to clearly spell out his administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. There are signs, though, that Biden may replace the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy with a new policy. The Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy he adopts will be among his most-consequential foreign policy decisions. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will have an important bearing on Indian (and Asian) security.
On China, Biden has shown a striking lack of strategic clarity thus far. After he launched his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The strong blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
In stark contrast, Trump repeatedly pledged during his successful presidential campaign in 2016 to fundamentally change the relationship with China. After assuming office, Trump quickly abandoned the approach of his predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Obama, that aided the rise of China, including as a trade leviathan. Jettisoning his predecessors’ policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing, Trump classified China as a “revisionist power,” “strategic competitor” and principal adversary.
Trump’s standing up to China explains why, unlike in Europe or the US, he has been popular in large parts of the Indo-Pacific, including in places as diverse as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and South Korea. According to one analyst, many Asians “saw Trump as a coarse but powerful leader of the free world against [Chinese] communist tyranny.” Even within China, Trump was admired by those concerned about President Xi Jinping’s increasingly arbitrary and despotic rule.
However, by the time Trump came to office and engineered a paradigm shift in America’s China policy, China had already emerged as his country’s most formidable competitor and as a potent threat to its Asian neighbours.
Assisting China’s rise was the “greatest” mistake of US foreign policy since the 1930s, according to Robert O’Brien, the last National Security Advisor under Trump. How did this blunder occur? “We closed our ears and our eyes. We believed what we wanted to believe,” O’Brien candidly said last year.
That blunder “created a monster,” as Trump admitted in 2019—a monster that will continue to haunt not only the US but also its allies and partners. Indeed, Asian countries, from Japan to India, are bearing the brunt of China’s rise as an expansionist power that openly flouts international norms.
When Biden assumed office, the US was locked in a trade war, a technology war and a geopolitical war with China, with the strategic and ideological confrontation between the world’s two largest economies beginning to reshape global geopolitics. In fact, by defining the CCP as the main threat to international peace and security and to the Chinese people’s well-being, the Trump administration signalled its support for regime change in Beijing.
Of all the actions of the Trump administration, the one that stung Beijing the most was the unremitting US offensive against China as a predatory state controlled by the CCP without any political legitimacy or rule of law. This ideological onslaught implied that regime change was essential for China to abide by international norms and rules. The paradox is that Xi himself, as the New York Times reported, “sees China and the United States as locked in ideological rivalry. Since coming to power in 2012, he has called for Chinese schools, textbooks and websites to inoculate youth against Western values that could erode party rule and the country’s ‘cultural self-confidence.’”
Meanwhile, US sanctions in the past year against CCP officials involved in the Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other crackdowns or in the South China Sea aggression have complicated Xi’s task of holding his flock together. US sanctions and visa restrictions against CCP cadres and their family members threaten to create internal disarray in the party by jeopardising important members’ interests, including their ability to keep money overseas and send their children to study in the West.
However, just when the Trump administration was on the cusp of forging an international democratic coalition against China, threatening the survival of Xi’s regime, Trump lost the election. The election loss set in motion tumultuous and riotous developments in Washington that could undermine Trump’s legacy.
UNCERTAIN DIRECTION UNDER BIDEN
Will Biden radically shift the Trump administration policy and treat China as a major competitor but not an implacable enemy, while also abandoning economic decoupling? Such a climbdown would mean a significant dilution of the US strategy to contain China, including reining in the relentless expansionism it pursues without regard to the diplomatic or geopolitical fallout.
Some close to the new US administration have fallaciously argued that China’s significant geopolitical and economic clout cannot be rolled back and that the country is far too integrated in the global economy for economic decoupling to be successful. In fact, some key members of Biden’s team believe that, instead of the US treating China as its primary adversary, Washington and Beijing should aim for shared leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
How will seeking shared leadership justify the united democratic front on China that Biden wishes to build? Can the US build a democratic coalition with the aim, not to contain China, but to employ major democracies’ aggregate geopolitical and economic heft to establish a modus vivendi with Beijing?
It is critical issues like these that have injected a layer of uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific landscape following the leadership change in the White House. The big unknown is whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy will undergo structural shifts.
It is significant that, since Biden’s victory in the US presidential election in November, China has displayed a distinctly cocky tone in its official statements. It has also put its propaganda machinery in overdrive. What explains this? The Chinese communist publication Global Times has offered an answer: “Biden is likely to abandon or at least adjust” Trump’s “so-called Indo-Pacific strategy” and “fix ties with China.”
Xi’s regime, which presides over the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, clearly saw Biden’s election win as a silver lining for China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reposing China’s hope in Biden, said early this year that “a new window of hope is opening” and that the bilateral relationship with the US could now get back on the right track following a period of “unprecedented difficulty.”
The pressure that the Trump administration ramped up on China has exacted a heavy toll on Beijing, denting its international image. Negative views of China reached historic highs in 2020.
Until Biden’s election victory became clear, Beijing had sought to absorb the Trump administration’s unceasing attacks by essentially ducking them. It sought the moral high ground by decrying Washington’s return to the “zero-sum thinking of the Cold War era” and by claiming that it did not want to play into America’s hands by responding in kind (as if it could). In essence, China’s then posture implicitly conveyed that it could do little to deter the Trump administration’s attacks and thus was putting up with them without seeking to provoke greater US punitive actions.
But once a Biden win became apparent, Beijing began aggressively lambasting the Trump administration’s actions as extreme and crazy. More significantly, it started saying that, once the Biden administration took office, the US and China must come to terms with each other by opening dialogue. Seeking such a modus vivendi was also embedded in Xi’s belated congratulatory letter to Biden.
The Trump administration’s approach towards China, meanwhile, continues to be mischaracterised by many in the West as a “got-it-alone” approach. The truth is that the Trump administration ramped up pressure on China by resurrecting the Quad and giving it concrete shape. Trump may have weakened the trans-Atlantic alliance but, in the Indo-Pacific, his administration built the Quad into a promising coalition and upgraded security ties with key partners, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Thailand. It also established new US defence cooperation with Vietnam and the Maldives.
Biden wants to build a coalition of democracies to exert pressure on China. But this is exactly what the Trump administration sought to do. The Quad is an alliance of leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific. The Trump administration committed to establishing a concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of an Indo-Pacific balance of power. This led even distant powers like France, Germany and Britain to view a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security and to unveil their own Indo-Pacific policies.
Important democracies today are looking to Biden to provide strategic clarity on his approach to the Indo-Pacific. Holding a large Summit for Democracy, as he plans to do to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world,” can scarcely offer such clarity. The summit would represent a values-based, globalised approach standing in sharp contrast to the Trump administration strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Biden has claimed the US doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. In reality, the Trump administration has bequeathed important leverage to the Biden team to capitalise on and deal with Beijing from a position of strength. However, if the Biden administration seeks to paint the Trump team’s China legacy in unflattering light, it will undermine that leverage and embolden Beijing to demand the repudiation and rollback of Trump’s actions. In fact, Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden will return to the accommodationist approach of the Obama period, when China created artificial islands and militarised the South China Sea without inviting US sanctions or any other international costs.
In this light, how the Indo-Pacific and China policies develop under Biden will help shape regional security and the Quad’s future. If Biden weakens America’s Indo-Pacific and China policies, it will raise serious concerns across Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding US strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington in the first place.
Biden has already signalled the likely replacement of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Absent in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform and Biden’s campaign statements was any reference even to the widely used term “Indo-Pacific,” as if the Democrats wished to return to the old name that China prefers: “Asia-Pacific”. After his election, Biden started referring to the “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Instead, Biden coined a new phrase—“secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Also, in apparent deference to Beijing, the Biden office readout left out the assurance Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received from Biden during a congratulatory call that US security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Just before demitting office as the US vice president, Mike Pence asked the incoming president to “stay the course” and “stand up to Chinese aggression and trade abuses.” Pence called the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy “essential to our prosperity, our security and the vitality of freedom in the world.”
However, Biden thus far has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. A “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” which by definition doesn’t exclude autocracies like China, would imply the abandonment of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s goal of a rules-based and democracy-led order.
Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the Trump administration-initiated ideological offensive against the CCP as a threat to the Indo-Pacific and the wider world will survive under Biden. If it doesn’t, the CCP’s vicelike grip on China will endure, with its external aggression accelerating.
WILL BIDEN CO-OPT INDIA?
Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy approach will have an important bearing on Indian security and the direction of US-India strategic collaboration. China’s aggressive expansionism has already driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to closer defence and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the US and the signing of military logistics agreements last year with Japan and Australia.
The Trump administration helped midwife this tectonic shift by placing India at the centre of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with New Delhi. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration—in a symbolic nod towards India—renamed the US military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
Will Biden be able to build on that momentum in bilateral relations and formalise a soft alliance with New Delhi? The Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has created a significant opening for Washington to bring India along.
China’s aggression has compounded India’s security challenges by turning the once-lightly-patrolled Himalayan frontier into a “hot” border. Beijing has also hung the threat of further military surprises, even as it deepens its strategic nexus with Pakistan to contain India. India henceforth will have to patrol the Himalayan frontier in a manpower-intensive way and raise additional mountain-warfare forces to help counter the growing Chinese threat.
Bolstering deterrence holds the key, as Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of what is one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders. India remains committed to strengthening strategic partnerships with key powers in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration’s co-option of India will be pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific. After all, the other Quad members—the US, Japan and Australia—are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
India’s co-option, in fact, will ensure that the Quad becomes a de facto strategic alliance and starts playing a central role in a new multilateral security arrangement for the Indo-Pacific. That development, in turn, will serve as further evidence that the Xi regime’s aggressive policies are starting to backfire.
The momentum towards deeper US-India strategic collaboration, however, could perceptively slow if Biden’s foreign policy downgrades India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific strategy and returns to the Obama-era accommodationist approach towards China. If that happens, it would convince Indian policymakers to step up military modernisation so that India not only effectively counters Chinese threats and aggression but also starts imposing significant deterrent costs on Beijing. In any event, security across the Indo-Pacific, including US strategic interests, would benefit if India reinvented itself as a more secure and competitive nation.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
China’s recent encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability. But regional powers – beginning with India and increasingly supported by the US and other Western powers – are pushing back, implying that Chinese President Xi Jinping will live to regret the decisions of 2020.
The year 2020 will be remembered not only for the COVID-19 shock and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, but also as a moment of reckoning for China. With its international reputation battered by the pandemic, and with pushback against its territorial overreach intensifying, China’s ability to pursue its geopolitical ambitions is diminishing rapidly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its relations with India.
The shift began in May. As the brutal Himalayan winter receded, a shocked India found that Chinese forces had occupied hundreds of square kilometers of borderlands in its northernmost Ladakh region. The encroaching forces, backed by thousands of troops in the rear, had seized mountaintops and other strategic vantage points, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had established forward bases, blocking India’s access to areas along the disputed frontier that had been under its exclusive jurisdiction.
It was a cynical attempt to exploit not only the chaos and hardship caused by China’s most infamous global export, COVID-19, but also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s longstanding appeasement policy. In the previous six years, Modi had met with Chinese President Xi Jinping 18 times, in the hope of fostering friendlier relations (and weakening the China-Pakistan axis).
This hope blinded Modi to China’s preparations for aggression, including combat exercises and the frenzied construction of military infrastructure along the frontier. In this sense, Modi repeated the mistake of India’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose dogged courtship of Mao Zedong enabled China to annex Tibet, thereby eliminating the territorial buffer between itself and India. Chinese encroachments culminated in the 1962 Himalayan border war, which began with a surprise PLA attack and ended with territorial losses for India.
That war shattered India’s illusions of China as a trustworthy partner, and triggered a shift away from pacifism. With China’s recent Himalayan aggression, India seems to be re-learning the same lesson. Already, India has matched Chinese troop deployments along the frontier and occupied strategic positions in the area.
The heightened tensions have triggered a series of clashes, the worst of which left 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of PLA troops dead in mid-June. By turning what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a “hot” border and raising the specter of further military surprises – all while deepening its strategic ties with Pakistan – China has left India little choice but to strengthen its strategic posture significantly.
In fact, a major Indian military buildup is in the cards. This will include vastly increased frontier patrols and additional mountain-warfare forces. But, because Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, deterrence will also be essential.
That is why India has been testing a series of leading-edge missile systems, including a hypersonic cruise missile, a hybrid missile-torpedo (which can be deployed against submarines and aircraft carriers), and an anti-radiation missile (designed to seek and destroy enemy radar-equipped air defense systems). This portends substantial Indian investment in military modernization.
India’s military buildup will also include significant expansion of its naval capacity. This will enable India to adopt a much stronger maritime posture, which includes opening a front in the Indian Ocean, through which much of China’s trade (including most of its energy supplies) passes.
But India is not confronting China alone. In November, Australia, Japan, and the US joined India for the Malabar naval war games – the first-ever military exercise involving all four members of the so-called Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies.
Deepening cooperation among the Quad is central to America’s Indo-Pacific policy, which includes a focus on the maritime realm. Given bipartisan consensus in the US on the need to counter China’s expansionism, this policy is unlikely to change significantly under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
A US-India strategic alliance has long been China’s security nightmare. Yet, by repaying Modi’s peace overtures with stealthy land grabs, Xi has made such an alliance more likely. It was in response to China’s aggression that in October, India finally concluded the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US reaches with its allies. The terms of the agreement had been under negotiation for more than a decade.
Beyond working with likeminded states, diplomatically and militarily, India is attempting to counter China by exposing its neocolonial activities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. And it will likely seek to foil Xi’s plan to capture the 442-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama and cement China’s hold over Tibet. With the current Dalai Lama having made clear that his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find his successor in its Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions, which produced a Dalai Lama in the late seventeenth century.
Yet another likely dimension of India’s new China strategy will be to pursue a managed and selective economic decoupling. China’s trade balance with India represents its third-largest bilateral surplus (after the US and the European Union). Now that India recognizes the folly of relying on China for critical supplies, this is bound to change.
Since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, it has more than doubled its territory by annexing ethnic-minority homelands and seizing other countries’ lands. Against this background, its recent encroachments on India’s territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability. Fortunately, regional powers – beginning with India – are pushing back. With this regional resistance increasingly supported by the US and other Western powers, Xi will most likely live to regret the decisions he made in 2020.
America’s Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA), which became law recently, highlights Tibet’s geostrategic importance, including as the source of Asia’s great rivers.Passedwith bipartisan support, TPSA establishes a US policy that the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama’s successor, is a decision to be made only by Tibetans, free from Beijing’s interference. It mandates sanctions against Chinese officials interfering in such processes.
Will America’s new law serve as a wake-up call for India to start reclaiming its leverage on Tibet? India already received a wake-up call in April-May 2020 when China stealthily grabbed key vantage points in Ladakh and then claimed, as in the Galwan Valley case, that they were historically part of Tibet.
Tibet is clearly at the centre of the China-India divide. And TPSA holds special significance for India, which gave refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers, helped preserve the Tibetan language and culture, and kept the spirit of Tibetan independence alive. The Indo-Tibetan border was largely peaceful throughout history until China occupied the buffer Tibet in 1951, imposing itself as India’s neighbour and then waging war 11 years later.
The Chinese name for Tibet — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Repository” — underscores the great value this vast plateau, with its bounteous mineral and water resources, holds for China. On Aug. 29, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed that Tibet be made an “impregnable fortress” and its borders secured. The Chinese Communist Party has honed its repressive practices in Tibet before applying them in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and now Hong Kong.
India must realize that, by aligning its Tibet position with Beijing’s wishes, it has emboldened China’s designs against it. This is apparent from China’s latest aggression, which has triggered an ongoing, months-long standoff between more than one lakh Indian and Chinese troops in icy Himalayan conditions.
Today, China is claiming Indian areas on the basis of not any Han-Chinese connection to them but alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Simply put, China’s territorial claims in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal are based on its claim over Tibet, which India, paradoxically, has acknowledged.
In fact, to tie India’s hands on Tibet, China has been quoting the 2003 agreement under which India formally “recognized” the cartographically truncated Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” This recognition allowed China to advance its “salami slicing” strategy against India, including labelling Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet” and gradually increasing its incursions into Indian areas.
But make no mistake: that agreement has been nullified by China’s open violation of its key provisions, including that, “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other.” China’s use of force to unilaterally change facts on the ground contravenes the agreement’s condition to “maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas” and work toward “the clarification of the Line of Actual Control.”
China has no legal standing to press India for compliance when its actions have knowingly gutted the accord, rendering it invalid in international law. Indeed, New Delhi has repeatedly stated that China, through its territorial aggression in Ladakh, has violated every agreement and commitment on border peace that the two countries have signed.
China’s recently unveiled Brahmaputra mega-project is another reminder for India to add nuance — and leverage — to its Tibet stance. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives 48.33% of the total river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory. A Chinese communist publication recently asked India to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy.
While the Tibetans pray for the long life of the present Dalai Lama, Xi is waiting impatiently for him to die so that he can install a puppet as his successor, in the way China has captured the Panchen Lama institution. To frustrate his plan, India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find, appoint and protect his successor. The Dalai Lama has said his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” which could mean in India’s Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions.
India must get its act together to help advance its interests. It should start referring to the Himalayan frontier by its correct historical term — the “Indo-Tibetan border” — and emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet was predicated on Beijing’s assurance (which it has broken) to grant the plateau genuine autonomy. India could appoint a special emissary on Tibet by stating that, although Tibet has ceased to be a political buffer with China, it should become a political bridge between the two countries.
To counter China’s growing challenges to its unity and territorial integrity, India needs to think and act creatively. America’s TPSA is significant because Tibet remains China’s Achilles’ heel.
If India is unwilling to exploit that vulnerability, the least it can do is to stop endorsing China’s stance on Tibet. This is necessary to help stem China’s aggressive Himalayan territorial revisionism and challenge its plan to control the spigot for much of northern India’s water. By cautiously recalibrating its Tibet policy, India can help elevate Tibet as an international strategic and environmental issue.
The global shock brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, with its major economic and social disruptions, has ensured that 2020 will go down in history as a watershed year. Researchers believe that the impact of the pandemic has set in motion higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, bankruptcy, unemployment and domestic violence, among other things.
But one key implication of the pandemic has received little attention: increasing demand for safe water. Freshwater is not just the basis of cleanliness; it is an indispensable weapon in combating Covid-19 or any other disease.
More fundamentally, water is essential for economic growth and social stability. However, it has already become the world’s most exploited natural resource. Even before the pandemic flared, our water crisis was becoming more acute.
According to the British scientific journal Nature, about 53 per cent of the people across the globe go without safe sanitation services of any kind. The UN reports that about 40 per cent of global households lack access to basic handwashing facilities, while 28 per cent of the world’s population even lacks access to even safe drinking water.
Most striking is how unevenly and unequally water resources are distributed across the world. Some countries, notably Canada and Russia, are endowed with copious water resources. The poorest states in water resources, by contrast, are largely located in Middle East and North Africa. Natural water availability in these countries is just a fraction of 1 per cent of the per capita resources in, say, water-rich Brazil.
Water scarcity, already affecting two-thirds of the global population, is set is grow due to several factors. These include over-exploitation of the resources of rivers, aquifers and lakes; rising demands of economic development; changing diets, especially the increasing intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive; and global warming.
National paucity of water resources is driving some countries or companies to produce food for their home markets on overseas farmland, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, the critical importance of water, coupled with its growing shortages, has resulted in grating “hydropolitics” in transnational basins.
Riparian neighbours are increasingly competing to appropriate resources of shared rivers and aquifers by building hydro-engineering structures, which are exacerbating the environmental impact. Not surprisingly, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.
In fact, just like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in several river basins. In Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, water has become the most contested resource.
A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned in 2012 that the use of water as a weapon or a tool of terrorism will become more likely in some regions, with some countries using shared water resources to exert leverage over their neighbours and to secure regional influence. Since then, the water situation has become more dire and the hydropolitics murkier.
Another trend is the increasing commodification of water, as reflected in the dramatic rise of the bottled-water industry. The bottled-water industry’s rise over the past two decades has had two global implications.
First, bottled water has become a major source of plastic waste. And second, bottled mineral water is already more precious than crude oil. The current international spot price of crude oil is lower than the retail price of any mineral water in a convenience store or supermarket.
Yet more and more people are relying on bottled water even in cities in the developed world where tap water is safe and highly regulated.
Water remains the world’s most underrated and under-appreciated resource. The pandemic, though, may have helped raise global awareness about the centrality of water in our lives. But the pandemic has also underlined the challenge: how to meet the increasing demand for water?
One pathway is to use new clean-water technologies to tap non-traditional supply sources, such as seawater, brackish water, recycled wastewater, and atmospheric water. Scientific advancements have substantially improved the energy-water ratio of such technologies, thus increasing the commercial feasibility and attraction of utilising new supply sources.
These sources of supply, however, still remain more expensive than conventional water.
It has also become imperative to achieve greater water-use efficiency and productivity, including controlling wasteful practices. Because agriculture uses about 70 per cent of the world’s water supply, the greatest potential for easing the water crisis is through practices that cut the amount of water used in food and livestock production.
The sharpening hydropolitics, meanwhile, represents a formidable challenge. It has turned shared water resources into an engine of power struggles, with some upstream countries such as China and Turkey criticised for seeking to weaponise this most essential of natural resources.
There is no alternative to rules-based co-operation on shared water resources. Transparency on national projects, collaboration between co-riparian states on trans-boundary aquifers, rivers and lakes, sharing arrangements, and dispute-settlement mechanisms are the building blocks of water peace.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Even after Asia’s economies climb out of the COVID-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity. China’s recently unveiled plan to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, better known as the Brahmaputra, may be the biggest threat yet.
China dominates Asia’s water map, owing to its annexation of ethnic-minority homelands, such as the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins – a strategy that hasn’t spared even friendly or pliant neighbors, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Indeed, China has not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors.
The consequences have been serious. For example, China’s 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river, Southeast Asia’s arterial waterway, have led to recurrent drought downriver, and turned the Mekong Basin into a security and environmental hot spot. Meanwhile, in largely arid Central Asia, China has diverted waters from the Illy and Irtysh rivers, which originate in China-annexed Xinjiang. Its diversion of water from the Illy threatens to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has all but dried up in less than four decades.
Against this background, China’s plan to dam the Brahmaputra near its disputed – and heavily militarized – border with India should be no surprise. The Chinese communist publication Huanqiu Shibao, citing an article that appeared in Australia, recently urged India’s government to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy. With the Brahmaputra megaproject, China has provided an answer.
The planned 60-gigawatts project, which will be integrated into China’s next Five-Year Plan starting in January, will reportedly dwarf China’s Three Gorges Dam – currently the world’s largest – on the Yangtze River, generating almost three times as much electricity. China will achieve this by harnessing the power of a 2,800-meter (3,062-yard) drop just before the river crosses into India.
What the chairman of China’s state-run Power Construction Corp, Yan Zhiyong, calls an “historic opportunity” for his country will be devastating for India. Just before crossing into India, the Brahmaputra curves sharply around the Himalayas, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon – twice as deep as America’s Grand Canyon – and holding Asia’s largest untapped water resources.
Experience suggests that the proposed megaproject threatens those resources – and China’s downstream neighbors. China’s past upstream activities have triggered flash floods in the Indian states of Arunachal and Himachal. More recently, such activity turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and gray as it entered India.
About a dozen small or medium-size Chinese dams are already operational in the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But the megaproject in the Brahmaputra Canyon region will enable the country to manipulate transboundary flows far more effectively. Such manipulation could leverage China’s claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan. Given that China and India are already locked in a tense, months-long military standoff, which began with Chinese territorial encroachments, the risks are acute.
And yet the country that will suffer the most as a result of China’s Brahmaputra dam project is not India at all; it is densely populated and China-friendly Bangladesh, for which the Brahmaputra is the single largest freshwater source. Intensifying pressure on its water supply will likely trigger an exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.
The Brahmaputra megaproject also amounts to a slap in the face of Tibet, which is among the world’s most biodiverse regions and has a deeply rooted culture of reverence for nature. In fact, the canyon region is sacred territory for Tibetans: its major mountains, cliffs, and caves represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo, and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.
If none of this deters China, the damage it is doing to its own people and prospects should. China’s over-damming of internal rivers has severely harmed ecosystems, including by causing river fragmentation and disrupting the annual flooding cycle, which helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. In August, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam. If the Brahmaputra mega-dam collapses – hardly implausible, given that it will be built in a seismically active area – millions downstream could die.
The Great Himalayan Watershed is home to thousands of glaciers and the source of Asia’s greatest river systems, which are the lifeblood of nearly half the global population. If glacial attrition is allowed to continue – let alone to be accelerated by China’s environmentally catastrophic activities – China will not be spared.
For its own sake – and the sake of Asia as a whole – China must accept institutionalized cooperation on transnational riparian flows, including measures to protect ecologically fragile zones and agreement not to dam relatively free-flowing rivers (which play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change). This would require China to rein in its dam frenzy, be transparent about its projects, accept multilateral dispute-settlement mechanisms, and negotiate water-sharing treaties with neighbors.
Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe this will happen. On the contrary, as long as the Communist Party of China remains in power, the country will most likely continue to wage stealthy water wars that no one can win.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has been wrong on China almost his entire career. Will he finally get it right after being sworn in as president? Biden’s policy will help shape security across the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s behavior.
It is no exaggeration to say that international policy toward China has for decades been shaped largely by one power — the United States. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. presidents aided China’s rise, including its integration in international institutions — from the United Nations Security Council to the World Trade Organization. And other countries followed the American lead in outsourcing manufacturing to China and building closer bonds with that communist giant.
It is Donald Trump’s presidency that began a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party” (CCP). Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. “created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable competitor in what will be remembered as a historically unprecedented act.
The U.S., however, is separated from China by a vast ocean — the Pacific — and does not have the same immediate and potent security concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness that Japan and many other Asian states have. The security costs of America’s China blunder are being borne essentially by Asians.
The year 2020 will be remembered for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock, with the dictatorship in Beijing seeking to capitalize on the pandemic. Consequently, negative views of China have reached historic highs in many countries, according to a recent survey.
Biden is assuming office at a time when an international pushback against China is clearly emerging. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. But if Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will ease — and the decoupling will slow.
Could Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”
Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on aggressive expansionism, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model Xi is now seeking to replicate in the East China Sea and the Himalayas, where China remains locked in a military standoff with India since May after encroaching on some Indian border areas.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken,said in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centered and “reengage China and work with China” from a position of strength. Finding ways to cooperate with Beijing would mark a break with the Trump administration’s approach, which sees the U.S. in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the dictatorship there.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in aco-authored essay in the Foreign Affairs journal,argued for “managed coexistence” with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential U.S. partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China is no different than “cooperative competition” that some prominent Chinese are promoting. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium.
But make no mistake: A U.S. policy of “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the CCP internally and externally. China is already the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the CCP’s primacy.
In 2000, Biden, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supported establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Beijing on grounds that it would yield “economic benefits to the U.S.,” “political reform in China” and a positive “impact on our national security.” More than a decade later, in a 2011 op-ed, Biden declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his continuing strategic naïveté by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
After Biden’s election win over Trump, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the president-elect during a congratulatory call that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance.
In another worrying sign, Steve Ricchetti, who led the effort 21 years ago to get China into the WTO (an entry that has come back to haunt the U.S.), was named as the White House senior adviser to Biden — or, as one American newspaper put it, “tapped for the West Wing’s wise-man role.”
In an interview this month, Biden surprisingly claimed that the U.S. doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. While promising not to immediately lift Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, Biden said he plans to get allies on the same page and have a robust U.S. industrial policy in place before finalizing a China strategy.
Such delay in crafting a strategy could help relieve pressure on Beijing. Biden can hardly lead a “unified front of allies,” to quote his words, without U.S. policy having strategic clarity.
In fact, even before taking office, Biden has signaled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept originally authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements, while the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific.”
China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. In recent days, Chinese state media have been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden started referring to “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to “free and open.” Instead, Biden has coined a new phrase — “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different. The likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy will spur concern in the region about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. policy.
Biden’s statement this week nominating Lloyd J. Austin as his secretary of defense made no reference to America’s biggest challenge, China. And instead of “Indo-Pacific,” it referred to “Asia-Pacific.” Austin’s own statement in response mentioned “Asia-Pacific,” not “Indo-Pacific” — a term that even European nations have embraced. Austin’s counterinsurgency experience in the Middle East scarcely equips him to deal with China’s expansionism.
Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, but it will be a major surprise if “managed coexistence” (aka “cooperative competition”) comes to define Biden’s China policy.
Such an approach will militate against the current U.S. bipartisan consensus on China. Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s unstoppable decline.
There is an additional factor that could constrain Biden from going soft on China — a lingering scandal involving his controversial son, Hunter. As vice president, Biden took Hunter aboard Air Force Two to Beijing in 2013. Within days, Hunter’s firm become a partner in a new Bank of China-backed investment company that raised more than $1.5 billion. Hunter personally made millions of dollars from the deal. Republicans could resurrect that scandal to embarrass Biden.
China has long used U.S. corporate greed to get American businesses do its bidding. Wall Street remains its powerful ally.
China also has another ally in Washington — those who remain mired in Cold War thinking and see Russia as the main foe. Biden’s national security team isn’t free of that mindset, which is why the outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has urged Biden to acknowledge that China is the “greatest national security threat that we face.”
Without U.S. leadership, vision and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism and the CCP’s malign global agenda will never be convincing. This is why Biden must at the earliest provide strategic clarity to his China approach.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.
It is no exaggeration to say that international policy toward China has for decades been shaped largely by one power — the United States. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. presidents aided China’s rise, including its integration into international institutions — from the UN Security Council to the World Trade Organization. And other countries followed the American lead in outsourcing manufacturing to China and building closer bonds with that communist giant. It is Donald Trump’s presidency that began a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
The U.S. and India are now close security partners. But it is no exaggeration to say that India’s security over the years has been gravely undermined by U.S. policies, which created a Frankenstein on India’s northern frontiers (China) and an epicentre of international terrorism on its western borders (Pakistan).
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: “President Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party, and here we are. Now, people of good faith can debate why free nations allowed these bad things to happen for all these years. Perhaps we were naive about China’s virulent strain of communism, or triumphalist after our victory in the Cold War, or cravenly capitalist, or hoodwinked by Beijing’s talk of a ‘peaceful rise.’ Whatever the reason — whatever the reason, today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. And President Trump has said: enough.”
Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. created a “monster” by aiding China’s rise: “They [China] took advantage of us for many, many years. And I blame us, I don’t blame them. I don’t blame President Xi. I blame all of our presidents, and not just President Obama. You go back a long way. You look at President Clinton, Bush — everybody; they allowed this to happen, they created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable peer competitor in what will be remembered as a historically unprecedented act.
The U.S., however, is separated from China by a vast ocean — the Pacific — and does not have the same immediate and potent security concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness that many Asian states have. The security costs of America’s China blunder are indeed being borne essentially by Asians, from those in Taiwan and Hong Kong to the ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs. And as the Chinese encroachments on Ladakh’s key border areas this year have highlighted, India is bearing the brunt of China’s terrestrial aggression.
Here’s the paradox: As Sino-Indian relations plumb new depths following the Chinese stealth encroachments in Ladakh, India — unable to effectively counter the China threat on its own — is strengthening defence and strategic collaboration with the U.S., the monster creator. Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has been a huge boon for American efforts to win over India, as highlighted by a recent agreement to share geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.
The U.S. today is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve — co-opt India in a “soft alliance.” In October, India signed the last of four “foundational” agreements that the U.S. maintains with all its close defence partners. Then-U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper declared that India will be “the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
The U.S.-India strategic ties bear little resemblance to America’s Cold War-era system, which rested on a patron-client framework, with the U.S. as the “hub” and its allies as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work nowadays, for the simple reason that a country as large as India cannot become just another Japan to the U.S.
The U.S., Japan and Australia are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves, making India’s co-option pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration — in a symbolic nod toward India — renamed the U.S. military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
The “soft alliance” the U.S. is seeking to build with India will be devoid of any treaty obligations. And, given India’s longstanding preference for strategic autonomy, the U.S. has sought to reassure New Delhi that it is not seeking to change its foreign-policy traditions.
In the recent words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, “Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India’s ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests across the Indo-Pacific region. As the U.S. assesses our own interests and how they intersect with India’s, we have seen the conditions emerge for an organic and deeper partnership — not an alliance on the post-war model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests and shared values.”
Biden’s tarnished record on China
The year 2020 will be remembered not just for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock and a moment of reckoning for the world’s largest dictatorship in Beijing, but also for the election defeat of Donald Trump, setting in motion the end of his U.S. presidency. Will Trump’s exit help relieve pressure on China?
Will the administration of Joe Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime built artificial islands and militarized the South China Sea — without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model China has sought to replicate in the Himalayas, by incrementally encroaching on the territories of India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Yet, just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” Few of China’s neighbours shared that assessment. The Obama administration did little more than watch China’s aggressive expansionism — from redrawing the geopolitical map in the South China Sea to rolling out the neo-colonial Belt and Road Initiative with the aim to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into its strategic orbit.
What will be the future of the Quad and the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy after Trump’s departure? This is another question with a bearing on India’s security and interests. The Trump administration gave India pride of place in its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. That strategy has relied on the Quad.
The Trump administration, moreover, lent full support to India in countering China’s Himalayan border aggression and cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups. It implicitly supported India’s 2019 Balakot airstrike deep inside Pakistan and refrained from criticizing India on its domestic actions, from the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir to a refugees-related citizenship law amendment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal rapport with Trump served India well. Trump’s standalone trip to India less than 10 months ago underscored how the expanding U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. Trump summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.” The visit will be remembered for Trump’s famous words at a mega-rally in Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Under Biden, the fundamental direction of the U.S.-India relationship toward closer cooperation is unlikely to change. But Biden could reset ties with China in order to lower Sino-U.S. tensions and rebuild cooperation in areas where bilateral interests converge.
The open support the U.S. has extended to India in countering China’s border aggression may not survive under a Biden administration, especially if it seeks to reset ties with Beijing. With a pusillanimous Modi government unwilling to call China out on its aggression, let alone wage a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese encroachments, Trump’s national-security team members spoke out on what Xi’s regime had done to India.
For example, after the Galwan Valley clashes of mid-June, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said, “Chinese troops ambushed the Indians. They beat 20 Indians to death. They beat them so badly with clubs with nails in them and wrapped with concertina wire — barbed wire. They beat the Indians so badly that they were disfigured and could not be identified by their comrades. The Chinese have been very aggressive with India.”
Pompeo, for his part, has repeatedly highlighted China’s aggression against India. On July 8, Pompeo said, “The Chinese took incredibly aggressive action. The Indians have done their best to respond to that … I don’t think it’s possible to look at that particular instance of Chinese Communist Party aggression in isolation. I think you need to put it in the larger context.” Then on July 22 he said, “The recent clashes initiated by the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] are just the latest examples of the CCP’s unacceptable behaviour.”
On July 30, Pompeo cautioned, “They talk about bringing socialism with Chinese characteristics to the world. Claims that they have now made for real estate in Bhutan, the incursions that took place in India, these are indicative of Chinese intentions. And they are testing, they are probing the world to see if we are going to stand up to their threats and their bullying.” And, in a similar vein, he said on Sept. 2: “From the Taiwan Strait to the Himalayas and beyond, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a clear and intensifying pattern of bullying its neighbours.”
Such plain speaking may become a thing of the past. Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said at a Hudson Institute event in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centred and “reengage China and work with China” from a position of strength. Finding ways to cooperate with Beijing would mark a break with the Trump administration’s approach, which sees the U.S. in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the CCP.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a 2017 lecture, warned against “containment” as a policy, stating: “We need to strike a middle course — one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order.” An autumn 2019 essay in the Foreign Affairs journalco-authored by Sullivan argued for “managed coexistence” with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential U.S. partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it posited.
The essay pushed for “managed coexistence” in these words; “Advocates of neo-containment tend to see any call for managed coexistence as an argument for a version of the grand bargain; advocates of a grand bargain tend to see any suggestion of sustained competition as a case for a version of containment. That divide obscures a course between these extremes — one that is not premised on Chinese capitulation or on U.S.-Chinese condominium.” According to the essay, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” The key, it argued, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China must have been music to Chinese ears. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Fu Ying, a vice chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress and an ex-vice foreign minister, called for “cooperative competition” between the U.S. and China. Ms. Fu wrote: “Both governments have heavy domestic agendas to attend to, and so even if competition between China and the United States is unavoidable, it needs to be managed well, cooperatively. It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The concept of “cooperative competition” sounds a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements. But make no mistake: America’s “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the CCP internally and externally. China is already the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party.
What is remarkable — and a cause for deep concern — is that Biden has been wrong on China virtually his entire career.
For example, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden in 2000 supported establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Beijing on grounds that it would yield “economic benefits to the U.S.,” “political reform in China” and a positive “impact on our national security.” More than a decade later, in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2011, Biden gullibly declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring at a campaign rally, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
After Biden’s election win over Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the president-elect during a congratulatory call that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance. In another worrying sign, Steve Ricchetti, who led the effort 21 years ago to get China into the WTO (an entry that has come back to haunt the U.S.), was named as the White House senior adviser to Biden — or, as one American newspaper put it, “tapped for the West Wing’s wise-man role.”
Likely demise of “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge relates to the world’s economic and geopolitical hub — the Indo-Pacific region, which unites the Indian and Pacific oceans. An expansionist China is injecting greater instability and tensions in the Indo-Pacific through its territorial and maritime revisionism and heavy-handed use of economic and military power.
When Trump took office, he replaced Obama’s floundering “pivot” to Asia with the broader “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, besides designating China as a strategic competitor and threat. Will America’s Indo-Pacific policy flip again during Biden’s presidency?
Last month’s “Malabar” Australia-India-Japan-U.S. naval war games in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea showed that the Quad is beginning to take concrete shape in response to China’s muscular policies. But just when a concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific seems closer than ever, the impending change of U.S. government has added a new layer of uncertainty, including on the future of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden, even before taking office, has signalled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept was originally authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rarely has the U.S. adopted a foreign-designed concept as the linchpin of its foreign policy.
The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s days seem numbered. Even the term “Indo-Pacific,” whose use expanded America’s regional framework to include India as a major power, was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
In fact, the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific” in place of “Indo-Pacific.” It carried a section titled “Asia-Pacific.” China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. After the U.S. presidential election, the Chinese state media has been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden has started referring to “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to “free and open.” Instead, Biden has coined a new phrase — “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He used the new expression in calls with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan. Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the current “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
Today, a rules-based and democracy-led order in the Indo-Pacific has become more important than ever to ensure a stable power balance. If the region’s major democracies, from Canada and South Korea to Indonesia and India, leverage their growing strategic bonds to generate progress toward a broader concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be realized.
Instead, the likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is set to spur concerns in Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington.
Nowhere will these questions generate greater concerns than in India, which hosted the recent Malabar war games. India elevated the war games this year from a trilateral to quadrilateral event by finally acceding to Australia’s pending request to re-join an exercise from which it dropped out 12 years ago in a bid to appease Beijing. The Chinese communist mouthpiece Global Timessaid earlier that Australia’s inclusion would “signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”
The loss of the expression “free and open Indo-Pacific” will likely be seen in India as a diminution of its future role in American strategy. More broadly, it could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.
Biden has promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But such a values-based, globalized approach contrasts with the current U.S. strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Unless a clearer strategic vision emerges under Biden, the likely unravelling of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy could smother any hoped-for regional concert of democracies.
At a time when the strengthening China-Pakistan strategic nexus is imposing greater security costs on India, any shifts in America’s China and Pakistan policies — even if subtle — will only embolden the two hand-in-glove neighbours to further up the ante against New Delhi. U.S.-India relations thrived during the Trump presidency, despite Trump’s mini-trade war against New Delhi. But India now faces new uncertainties with regard to U.S. regional policies, including whether Biden’s administration will seek greater cooperation with Beijing and Islamabad.
Few know what Biden stands for. Biden, who turned 78 last month, will be the oldest ever American president sworn in for the first time. An October op-ed in The Wall Street Journal said, “Though it is impolitic to say so, Biden has exhibited clear signs of mental decline.”
Biden won the election despite having no political base or vision — and no ideas, other than to oust Trump from office. In fact, his divided Democratic Party is trying to figure out what it stands for after realizing the common goal of ending Trump’s presidency.
Some in Indian policy circles still remember how Senator Biden spearheaded a congressional move in 1992 that helped block Russian sale of cryogenic-engine technology for India’s civilian space program, setting it back many years. Today, the U.S. and India are not only space partners, but also the U.S. Strategic Command head defended India’s 2019 demonstration of a capability to destroy an orbiting satellite.
If as president, Biden seeks to mend U.S. ties with the Chinese dictatorship, relieves terrorism-related pressure on Pakistan by restoring security aid, and criticizes India on Kashmir and minority rights, New Delhi will have second thoughts on getting too close to the US. India, however, is likely to remain important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific that can countervail China’s military and economic moves.
Biden hasn’t revealed his thinking to any significant degree on foreign policy. Most members of the national security team he has selected are considered “liberal interventionists” — or hawks on the American left. It was liberal interventionists who, under Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Syria and Libya and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state pick, favoured invasion of Iraq in 2003 and military intervention in Libya in 2011. Indeed, Blinken publicly celebrated America’s occupation of Iraq as a “success,” claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. Sullivan, another hawk in Biden’s team, supported U.S. supply of anti-tank missiles for Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and Trump finally delivered.
Espousing military action as humanitarianism has been the common leitmotif uniting liberal interventionists with neoconservatives, who were behind America’s Iraq invasion and occupation. Today, both these powerful groups in Washington remain fixated on Russia, although Russia’s economy today is less than one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending one-fifth of China.
U.S. policy has already driven two natural competitors, China and Russia, into a growing strategic alignment. This geopolitical reality, if left unaddressed, could crimp U.S. strategy against China.
Let’s be clear: The year 2020 has been particularly bad for Beijing. China’s initial coverup of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan that gifted the world a horrendous pandemic, followed by its unchecked expansionism and pursuit of “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” were signal moments that spurred a tectonic shift in views across the political spectrum in the U.S. and helped change global opinion on China. Negative views of China have now reached historic highs in many countries, according to a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Perhaps the only bit of good news for Beijing in 2020 has been Trump’s ouster. Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden’s administration will ease the mounting U.S. pressure that has set in motion an international pushback against Beijing. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. If Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will certainly ease — and the decoupling could slow.
Although Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, it will be a major surprise if “managed coexistence” (aka “cooperative competition”) comes to define Biden’s China policy.
Such an approach will militate against the current bipartisan consensus on China in the U.S., reflected in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform’s pledge that the “Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government.” Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s inexorable decline.
There is an additional factor that could constrain Biden from going soft on China — a lingering scandal involving his controversial son, Hunter. As vice president, Biden took Hunter aboard Air Force Two to Beijing in 2013. Within days, Hunter’s firm become a partner in a new Bank of China-backed investment company that raised more than $1.5 billion. Hunter personally made millions of dollars from the deal. Republicans could resurrect that scandal to embarrass Biden.
In fact, after Biden’s election win, the U.S. state department released a 72-page blueprint on how to checkmate China’s imperial ambitions to dominate the world. The blueprint, which includes a section on China’s internal vulnerabilities, is in the style of a landmark 1947 essay by George F. Kennan (the founding director of its Policy Planning Staff) that helped institute the containment policy against the Soviet Union — a policy that defined the Cold War era. Kennan published the essay anonymously in the journal Foreign Affairs, the so-called “X-Article.”
The new blueprint on how to deal with the China challenge is likely to serve as broad guidance for Biden’s administration. It specifies a multipronged approach to address the China challenge.
For New Delhi, the key concern extends beyond the bilateral relationship with Washington — a relationship that is likely to remain close. There is gnawing uncertainty about the larger strategic approach of the Biden presidency and how it will align with India’s own strategic interests.
Without U.S. leadership and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism will never be convincing. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will help influence Beijing’s behaviour in Asia and the strategic trajectory of the U.S.-India relationship.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.
In a world wracked by violence, Islamist beheadings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses should not be underestimated, and the lessons it suggests about prosecuting the “war on terror” must not be ignored.
Last month, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant stalked, stabbed, and decapitated a history teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb near the middle school where Paty worked. Soon after, a Quran-carrying Tunisian man beheaded a woman and fatally stabbed two other people in a church in Nice. In the same month, two British-born Islamic State (ISIS) militants were brought to the United States to face trial for their participation in a brutal abduction scheme in Syria that ended with American and other hostages beheaded on camera.
In a world wracked by violence, such killings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses to fundamental principles of modern civilization should not be underestimated.
The ancient Greeks and Romans instituted beheading as a mode of capital punishment. Today, radical Islamists commonly employ it in extrajudicial executions, which have been reported in a wide range of countries, including Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. In Mozambique, up to 50 people, including women and children, have reportedly been murdered – and, in many cases, decapitated – by ISIS-linked fighters this month alone.
Such savagery casts a long shadow – especially because perpetrators so often share images of their actions. Ever since the 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, terrorist organizations have taken to posting videos of beheadings online. After murdering Paty, the perpetrator tweeted a photo of the severed head.
For Islamists, beheadings are a potent weapon of asymmetric warfare. The gruesome spectacle inspires jihadi sympathizers around the world, while fomenting fear in local communities, to the point that the Islamists are often able to impose their will – including medieval codes of conduct – on the societies in which they operate.
Jihadis represent a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims. But, by making clear their willingness to behave inhumanely, they have ensured that few dare defy them. Just this month, a Bangladeshi cricket star was forced, under threat of Islamist retaliation, to apologize publicly for briefly attending a Hindu ceremony in India. Through such tactics, Islamists are gradually snuffing out more liberal, diverse Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries.
Although beheadings have a particularly visceral impact, they are far from the only way the jihadists incite fear. Earlier this month, ISIS-linked gunmen stormed Afghanistan’s Kabul University, killing at least 35 – mainly students – and wounding dozens more. In Vienna, another Islamist, who had previously been jailed for trying to join ISIS, killed four people and wounded 22 in a shooting rampage.
The persistent scourge of Islamist violence is a clear signal that the global “war on terror,” launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, has faltered. Even within Western countries, meaningful government action against Islamist extremism has often been stymied by concerns about discrimination. But, far from protecting Muslims, those crying “Islamophobia” often are making Muslim communities less secure, by allowing extremism to grow unchecked.
The truth is that there is only one country in the world today that is truly cracking down on Islam, rather than on radical Islamism: China. In the last few years, China has incarcerated more than one million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region. Under the pretense of fighting terrorism, the authorities are carrying out a methodical, large-scale erasure of Islamic identities.
And yet the international community – including Muslim countries – have remained largely silent about China’s actions. Last year, Malaysia’s then-prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, explained why: “China is a very powerful nation.”
By contrast, after the Nice attack, Mahathir tweeted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” The incendiary tweet has since been removed for “glorifying violence,” though Mahathir’s account wasn’t suspended – a missed opportunity to push back against incitement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has called for a boycott of French goods, because French President Emmanuel Macron pledged after Paty’s murder to defend secularism against radical Islam. It is clearly far easier to attack a democracy than to stand up to a ruthless dictatorship.
But none of this will protect Muslim communities, let alone end Islamist terrorism. For that, governments must adopt a new approach, based on a better understanding of the enemy they are fighting.
Islamist extremism is not an organization or an army; it is an ideological movement. As recent attacks show, the existence of a clear doctrine of violence obviates the need to coordinate action. That is why eliminating high-level figures in ISIS or al-Qaeda does so little to stop the bloodshed, and why military action alone will always fall short.
Instead, counterterrorism efforts should target the fount of jihadist terrorism: the militaristic Wahhabi theology, which justifies and commands the use of violence against “infidels.” This means, first and foremost, discrediting that “evil ideology,” as former British Prime Minister Theresa May put it, by attacking its core tenets, starting with the claim (unsupported by the Quran) that 72 virgins await every martyr in heaven.
It also means taming the clerics and other preachers of violent jihad. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew explained, we must target the “queen bees” (the preachers of violence) who inspire the “worker bees” (suicide attackers), not the worker bees themselves. Otherwise, the war on terror will continue to rage, and violent Islamism will become more deeply entrenched in societies.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
The current naval war games involving Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean show that the Quad — a loose coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies — is beginning to take concrete shape in response to China’s muscular foreign policy. A concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific seems closer than ever.
But just when the four powers appear on the cusp of formalizing their coalition, the impending change in the White House has added a layer of uncertainty. The big unknown is whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and how it will treat China will undergo a structural shift under President Joe Biden, as they did under President Donald Trump.
Trump fundamentally changed U.S. policy on China by acting on his campaign pledge to treat Beijing as a strategic rival and threat. He also replaced Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, which never acquired concrete strategic content, with the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, a concept authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rarely has the U.S. adopted a foreign-designed concept as the linchpin of its foreign policy.
Given Beijing’s heavy-handed use of its military and economic power, if President Biden flips America’s Indo-Pacific and China policies once again, that will raise concerns across Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington in the first place.
Nowhere will these questions generate greater concerns than in India, the host of the current Quad naval war games up to Nov. 20. Formally known as the Malabar exercise after an area on India’s southwestern coast, this annual series of complex war games is aimed at building military interoperability on the high seas, and now involves aircraft carriers.
India elevated Malabar this year from a trilateral to a quadrilateral event by finally acceding to Australia’s pending request to rejoin after it dropped out 12 years ago in a bid to appease Beijing. The Chinese communist mouthpiece the Global Times said earlier that Australia’s inclusion would “signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”Ships from the Indian navy, Royal Australian Navy, and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sail in formation during an exercise as part of Malabar 2020 on Nov. 3. (Handout photo from U.S. Navy)
China’s aggressive expansionism has driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to closer defense and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the U.S. and the signing of military logistics agreements this year with Japan and Australia. The Trump administration helped midwife this tectonic shift by placing India at the center of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with New Delhi.
The U.S., Japan and Australia are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves, making India’s co-option pivotal to building a constellation of democracies. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration — in a symbolic nod toward India — renamed the U.S. military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has helped bring India along.
But the momentum toward deeper collaboration could slow if Biden’s foreign policy downgrades India’s importance in regional strategy and returns — as Biden has signaled — to the Obama-era approach of cooperating with China in areas where Sino-U.S. interests converge. This would mark a break with the current approach that sees the U.S. in deeply ideological — even existential — conflict with the Chinese Communist Party.
Last year, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naivete by declaring that “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
To be sure, Biden made a habit during the election campaign of reversing his positions on major policy issues. Flip-flops are to Biden what egomania is to Trump. Still, the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy’s days seem numbered. Even the term “Indo-Pacific,” whose use expanded America’s regional framework to include India as a major power, was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
Biden could revert to the old term “Asia-Pacific” or keep “Indo-Pacific” while enunciating a new policy for the region. In calls last week with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia but not India, Biden emphasized a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” instead of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And, in apparent deference to Beijing, the Biden office readout left out the assurance Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received from the president-elect that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu.
The bipartisan consensus in Washington that the U.S. must get tough with Beijing, however, is likely to prevent Biden’s return to the softer China approach of the Obama period. It was on Obama’s watch that China launched cost-free expansionism, including redrawing the geopolitical map in the South China Sea.
The loss of the expression “free and open Indo-Pacific” will likely be seen in India as a diminution of its future role in American strategy. More broadly, it could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.
Biden has promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But such a values-based, globalized approach contrasts with the current U.S. strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Unless a clearer strategic vision emerges under Biden, the likely unraveling of the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy could silence any hoped-for regional concert of democracies.
President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a U.S.-Indian relationship that is nearer than ever to a formal alliance. Will the bilateral relationship continue to deepen under the next U.S. administration?
President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a U.S.-Indian relationship that is nearer than ever to a formal alliance. In the past decade, Washington and New Delhi have deepened their diplomatic and defense ties, but the Indian government has not yet officially allied with the United States. During the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, India and the United States signed a series of foundational defense, logistics, and intelligence-sharing agreements that pave the way for close security cooperation. Last month, the then U.S. secretary of defense, Mark Esper, declared that India will be “the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
India’s newfound interest in defense collaboration with the United States is mainly a reaction to Chinese imperial expansionism. Beijing’s territorial aggression in the Himalayas this year and the resulting clashes with Indian troops laid bare the risks to India of dealing with its giant neighbor without the clear support of the United States. As the specter of additional Himalayan battles—or even a reprise of the 1962 border war with China—looms large, India has grown more willing to work with the United States to meet common challenges. To that end, India has intensified its involvement with the Quad—a loose coalition among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States that is central to the United States’ strategy for maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” As a result of these efforts, India is currently hosting the first-ever Quad military exercise: the Malabar naval war games in the Indian Ocean.
Biden is likely to continue to push for closer cooperation between New Delhi and Washington. But he is also widely expected to reset ties with China in order to ease Sino-U.S. tensions and rebuild cooperation with Beijing. Such a reset will affect relations with India and raise doubts in New Delhi about Washington’s reliability. India’s future partnership with the United States is not yet guaranteed, and Biden will have to be careful not to push India away as he devises a new U.S. strategy in Asia.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
Separated from China by a vast ocean, the United States does not share India’s immediate and potent concerns over Beijing’s growing assertiveness. Earlier this year, while India sought to snuff out the novel coronavirus with the world’s strictest lockdown, China stealthily encroached on several border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region. Beijing seized key stretches of territory and has refused to pull back, alarming both Indian policymakers and the public at large.
Given these tensions, Biden will have to thread a diplomatic needle to improve relations with China without alienating India. Successive U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama aided China’s rise. Beijing militarized the South China Sea under Obama’s watch. Yet, just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” China’s neighbors do not share that assessment. It was the paradigm policy shift under Trump, who set Beijing in his crosshairs from the beginning of his presidency and designated China as a “revisionist power” and a “strategic competitor,” that persuaded India to move closer to the United States.
A softer U.S. approach toward China and its regional ally, Pakistan, could slow India’s entry into the U.S.-led security architecture and even push New Delhi to revert to its traditional posture of nonalignment, or strategic autonomy from great powers. The strengthening Chinese-Pakistani alliance generates high security costs for India, including raising the ominous prospect of a war on two fronts. New Delhi would be disappointed if Biden, in seeking to mend U.S. ties with the Chinese dictatorship, abandons Trump’s more confrontational posture toward Beijing. And if Biden relieves terrorism-related pressure on Pakistan by restoring security aid, the Indian government may have second thoughts about hopping on the U.S. security bandwagon.
Another issue that has the potential to sour relations with India during Biden’s presidency relates to India’s domestic division and polarization. While in office, Trump has refrained from commenting on India’s internal matters, understanding that U.S. criticism could strengthen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents at home. But Biden, through his official campaign page, has already slammed Modi’s government on issues such as Indian actions in Kashmir and a controversial law on citizenship for refugees, calling these matters inconsistent with India’s “long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multiethnic and multireligious democracy.”
India has traditionally resented such interference in and commentary on its internal affairs. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar canceled a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress last December after it emerged that Representative Pramila Jayapal, an outspoken critic of the Modi government, would attend. If U.S. leaders, including Biden, are outspoken in their criticism of Modi’s domestic policies or actions, New Delhi will be less likely and less able to formalize an alliance with Washington.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Such differences have the potential to set back U.S. relations with India. But the general trajectory toward increased strategic collaboration probably won’t be altered. There remains strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with India, a relationship that could serve as the fulcrum of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden’s administration will probably prioritize deepening the United States’ engagement with India. The incoming president, more broadly, is likely to pursue a pragmatic policy aimed at containing the threats posed by both the Chinese Communist Party and violent Islamist extremists. He will try to strengthen alliances and partnerships, some of which Trump undermined, and could echo Obama, who declared the U.S.-Indian relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century.”
Biden could accomplish what Trump failed to achieve—clinching a trade deal with India. The booming trade between the two countries totaled almost $150 billion last year. That commercial exchange may help the United States break China’s stranglehold on key global supply chains, especially in the medical sector. The Biden administration will need India, the world’s leading exporter of generic drugs, to source pharmaceuticals and medical technology needed to fight the pandemic. And given Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, it would be ironic if relations with India did not flourish under Biden.
Current U.S. policies have counterproductively fostered an expanding partnership between Russia and China. In that context, the strengthening bond with India assumes greater meaning for U.S. policymakers. Even as he tries to lower tensions with China, Biden must be careful not to allow the historic opportunity to forge a U.S.-Indian security alliance slip away. The world’s most powerful and most populous democracies could establish a strong partnership that helps underpin a stable power balance in the Indo-Pacific.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
China’s debt-trap diplomacy, redolent of colonial-era practices, has claimed its latest victim — the small, resource-rich nation of Laos. Struggling to pay back Chinese loans, Laos has handed China majority control of its national electric grid at a time when its state-owned electricity company’s debt has spiraled to 26% of its gross domestic product.
Sri Lanka and Pakistan, meanwhile, are taking fresh loans from China to pay off old loans, highlighting the vicious cycle in which they find themselves trapped. Both have already been compelled to cede strategic assets to China.
Less than three years ago, Sri Lanka signed away the Indian Ocean region’s most strategically located port, and more than 6,000 hectares of land around it, on a 99-year lease to China. The Hambantota port’s transfer to Beijing was seen in Sri Lanka as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to a cruel money lender.
Pakistan has given China exclusive rights, coupled with a tax holiday, to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years. China will pocket 91% of the port’s revenues. Next to the port, which is located at the crossroads of the global energy trade, China plans to build a Djibouti-style outpost for its navy.
Tajikistan, whose borrowing binge from 2006 was followed by its ceding of 1,158 sq. kilometers of the Pamir mountains to China and then granting Chinese companies rights to mine gold, silver and other mineral ores, recently asked Beijing for debt relief.
Another country heavily in debt to China, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, also sought relief from Beijing last month before it plunged into political chaos. In Africa, a long list of states wanting suspension of their debt repayments to Beijing during the coronavirus pandemic includes Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia.
Laos’s ambition was to become the battery of Southeast Asia by investing in hydropower development and exporting electricity. So, it agreed to give deep-pocketed Chinese state-run companies an important role in harnessing its rich hydropower reserves.
But today, Beijing has effectively taken control of Laos’s electric grid and, by extension, its water resources. This holds serious implications for environmental security and sustainable development in landlocked Laos, given how China’s heavy upstream damming of the Mekong River is already contributing to depleted river levels and recurrent drought in downstream areas.
China’s deal also arms it with tremendous leverage over a country with just seven million citizens. Beijing’s power to dim all lights in Laos leaves little wiggle room for its tiny neighbor, already reeling under its staggering debt obligations.
Meanwhile, as concerns mount that Sri Lanka could become China’s satellite state, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to arrive there from New Delhi tomorrow to try and pull Sri Lanka into Washington’s camp. Pompeo will press the ruling Rajapaksa brothers to accept a Status of Forces Agreement and a $480-million, five-year Millennium Challenges Corporation aid compact, both controversial subjects in Sri Lanka.
But cash-strapped Sri Lanka’s recent decision to turn to its biggest lender China, rather than to the International Monetary Fund, for a large loan to avert a default on its debt raises a larger question: What makes some nations sink deeper into Chinese debt, despite the risks of mortgaging their foreign-policy autonomy to Beijing?
The answer is several factors, including the comparative ease of borrowing from China, with IMF lending normally carrying stringent conditions and oversight. China does not evaluate a borrower state’s creditworthiness, unlike the IMF, which will not lend if its assessment indicates that additional loans could drive the country into a serious debt crisis. Indeed, China is happy to lend until nations face a debt crisis because of the greater leverage it gives Beijing.
Typically, China starts as an economic partner of another country, only to gradually become its economic master. In fact, the more desperate a borrower country’s situation, the higher the interest rates it will likely pay on Chinese loans. China has a record of exploiting the vulnerability of small, strategically located countries that borrow big. One such example is the Maldives, where Beijing converted big credits into political influence, including acquiring a couple of islets cheaply in that Indian Ocean archipelago.
Unlike some other heavily indebted states, the Maldives has been lucky to escape a Chinese debt trap. Since the Maldives’s election ousted its authoritarian president barely two years ago, India has stepped in to bail it out with generous budgetary support and a recent aid package.
China’s strategic use of debt to hold vulnerable states captive to its wishes may seem to mesh well with its vaunted focus on the long run. But the wider pushback against its imperial overreach, coupled with the corruption and malpractice in many of its Belt and Road projects, suggests that Beijing could be securing near-term advantages at the expense of its long-term goals.
Negative views of China have reached historic highs this year. The rising public distrust of China even in partner countries, and the fact that many Belt and Road projects are still not financially viable, have resulted in a declining number of new projects. Cumulatively, China is likely to pay a high price for its debt-trap diplomacy, even as the states it has ensnared are bound to suffer.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s undermining of US alliances, his administration has made significant progress in bringing together the Indo-Pacific’s leading democracies. And now that China has forced India’s hand, a new strategic arrangement in the region is almost a foregone conclusion.
The Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies, is rapidly solidifying this year in response to China’s aggressive foreign policy. Following a recent meeting of their top foreign-policy officials in Tokyo, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States are now actively working toward establishing a new multilateral security structure for the region. The idea is not to create an Asian version of NATO, but rather to develop a close security partnership founded on shared values and interests, including the rule of law, freedom of navigation, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, peaceful dispute resolution, free markets, and free trade.
China represents a growing challenge to all these principles. At a time when the world is struggling with a pandemic that originated in China, that country’s expansionism and rogue behavior have lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete formal security arrangement.
Of course, the Quad’s focus also extends beyond China, with the goal being to ensure a stable balance of power within a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” That concept was first articulated in 2016 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and has quickly become the linchpin of America’s regional strategy.
While all of the Quad partners agree in principle on the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific, it is Chinese expansionism that has catalyzed their recent actions. China is forcing even distant powers like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international peace and security.
France, for example, has just appointed an ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, after unveiling a new strategy affirming the region’s importance in any stable, law-based, multipolar global order. And Germany, which currently holds the European Council presidency, has sought to develop an Indo-Pacific strategy for the European Union. In its own recently released policy guidelines, it calls for measures to ensure that rules prevail over a “might-makes-right” approach in the Indo-Pacific. These developments suggest that in the coming years, Quad members will increasingly work with European partners to establish a strategic constellation of democracies capable of providing stability and an equilibrium of power in the Indo-Pacific.
After lying dormant for nine years, the Quad was resurrected in late 2017, but really only gained momentum over the last year, when its consultations were elevated to the foreign-minister level. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that, “once we’ve institutionalized what we’re doing, the four of us together, we can begin to build out a true security framework, a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us.”
The Quad’s future, however, hinges on India, because the other three powers in the group are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves. Australia and Japan are both under the US security (and nuclear) umbrella, whereas India not only shares a large land border with China, but also must confront Chinese territorial aggression on its own, as it is currently doing. China’s stealth land grabs in the northernmost Indian borderlands of Ladakh earlier this year have led to a major military standoff, raising the risks of further localized battles or another 1962-style frontier war.
It is precisely this aggression that has changed the strategic equation. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authorization of People’s Liberation Army incursions into the Himalayas has forced India itself to take a more confrontational position. It is now more likely than ever that the Quad will shift gears from consultation and coordination to become a de facto strategic alliance that plays a central role in a new multilateral security arrangement for the region.
This new architecture will bear little resemblance to America’s Cold War-era system, which rested on a patron-client framework, with the US as the “hub” and its allies as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work nowadays, for the simple reason that a country as large as India cannot become just another Japan to the US.
That is why the US is working to coax India into a “soft alliance” devoid of any treaty obligations. This effort will be on full display on October 26-27, when Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visit New Delhi for joint consultations with their Indian counterparts. Most likely, this meeting will conclude with India signing on to the last of the four foundational agreements that the US maintains with its other close defense partners. Under these accords, both countries will be committed to providing reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities, securing military communications, and sharing geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.
Moreover, having held multiple bilateral and trilateral military exercises with its Quad partners, India has invited Australia to next month’s “Malabar” naval war games with the US and Japan. This will mark the first-ever Quad military exercise; or, as the Chinese communist mouthpiece Global Times, put it, “it would signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”
US foreign policy has always been most effective when it leverages cooperation with other countries to advance shared strategic objectives. Despite President Donald Trump’s undermining of US alliances, his administration has built the Quad into a promising coalition, and has upgraded security ties with key Indo-Pacific partners, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and India.
More fundamentally, the Quad’s consolidation is further evidence that the Xi regime’s aggressive policies are starting to backfire. International views of China have reached new lows this year. Yet the Chinese foreign ministry – doubling down on its “wolf warrior” diplomacy – recently dismissed as “nonsense” Pompeo’s plan to forge an international coalition against China. “He won’t see that day,” the ministry declared. “And his successors won’t see that day either, because that day will never, ever come.”
But that day is coming. The Quad once merely symbolized an emerging international effort to establish a discreet check on Chinese power. If Xi’s increasing threats toward Taiwan lead to military action, then a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core, will become inevitable.
Is China’s insecurity over the restive Tibetan Plateau, which has already led to a major military standoff between the two Asian giants along their long and treacherous Himalayan frontier, driving President Xi Jinping’s belligerent policy toward India? The extended standoff has certainly raised the risks of further localized battles or another full-scale border war.
Xi recently underscored his regime’s anxieties by ordering Communist Party, government and military leaders to turn remote Tibet into an “impregnable fortress” against separatism and “solidify border defenses” to ensure frontier security with India. He also called for the Sinicizing of Tibetan Buddhism to help accelerate the Tibetan minority’s assimilation into the dominant Han culture.
Several issues are fueling Xi’s concerns over Tibet: controlling who succeeds the 85-year-old Dalai Lama; continued Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule; and China’s growing suspicions about India, which hosts a Tibetan government-in-exile and welcomes fleeing Tibetans.
Xi has sought to ruthlessly root out all signs of unrest in Tibet, the world’s largest and highest plateau that is very far from Beijing. Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, is more than 3,500 kilometers from the Chinese capital, but only 1,356 kilometers from New Delhi.
The Tibetan frontier with India was largely peaceful for centuries before China occupied Tibet in 1951. With its conquest of the “Roof of the World,” China enlarged its landmass by more than a third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic landscape.
After imposing itself as India’s neighbor, China refused to accept the Indo-Tibetan boundary’s customary alignment, which led to a bloody border war in 1962. That war, however, didn’t settle the territorial disputes, with China subsequently laying claim to more Indian territories beyond those it seized in 1962.
As China’s encroachments into India’s northernmost highlands since April show, Beijing is claiming these areas on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, even though Tibet only became part of China when China itself had been conquered by outsiders such as the Mongols and the Manchus.
The plain fact is that Tibet, despite disappearing as a buffer, remains at the heart of the China-India divide, fueling land disputes, diplomatic tensions, and — given that most of Asia’s great river systems originate on the Tibetan Plateau — feuds over the Chinese re-engineering of cross-border river flows.
Under Xi, China has introduced measures to snuff out Tibetan culture and cut Tibetans off from ancient traditions, including herding and farming. Recent reports have shed light on a coerced labor program to forcibly assimilate Tibetans, including through military drill-style skills training. China has also forced the last remaining Tibetan-language school to teach in Chinese.
For Xi, capturing the 442-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama is a pivotal final step toward securing China’s hold over Tibet.
India, however, continues to stand in the way of Xi’s plan to install a pawn to succeed the current 14th Dalai Lama. Underscoring the sharpening geopolitics, the U.S. Congress is close to passing the new Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which mandates financial and travel sanctions against Chinese officials who interfere in the Dalai Lama’s succession.
India, acting on the Dalai Lama’s instructions, could tacitly help Tibetan exiles find, appoint and protect his successor. The Dalai Lama has said his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” which could mean in India’s Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions. This explains why China has intensified its claim to Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.
Despite catching India’s military off-guard in Ladakh, located more than 1,500 kilometers from Tawang, Xi seems to have greatly underestimated India’s capacity to recoup from initial setbacks and fight back. About a month ago, Indian special forces stunned China by occupying vacant mountain heights overlooking key Chinese positions on the southern side of Ladakh’s Pangong Lake. Even more humiliating for Beijing is the fact that the Indian operation was spearheaded by a special force made up entirely of Tibetan exiles.
India’s daring seizure of the heights has drawn international attention to its secretive, all-Tibetan Special Frontier Force, established after Mao Zedong’s 1962 war with India. The itch to fight the occupiers of their homeland has drawn Tibetan recruits to this force.
Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, is working to complete Mao’s expansionist vision, from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayan region. But his aggression against India may not be progressing as planned.
His real achievement may be sowing the seeds of the world’s next big conflict and ensuring the rise of a more antagonistic India. This means Tibet’s shadow will only grow longer over China-India relations in the coming years.
The understanding reached between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping to pursue high-level contacts is unlikely to stem China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace. But it will allow Xi’s regime to blend engagement with containment, including challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands and strengthening Chinese claims of sovereignty over them.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposed visit to Tokyo will likely have the same core agenda that his recent trip to Europe had — to avert economic decoupling from China and dissuade U.S. allies from supporting Washington’s moves to impose checks on the exercise of Chinese power. China, however, is unwilling to curb its economic and territorial expansionism.
In fact, Xi continues to push the boundaries, as underscored by the multiple fronts he has opened simultaneously, including in the East and South China seas, the Himalayan frontier, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yet, Xi has sought to portray China as a country of peace, telling the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, “We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot war with any country. We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation.”
Xi’s words rang hollow, especially as they came amid the border aggression he has launched against India since April, when the People’s Liberation Army made stealth encroachments on the highlands of Indian Ladakh. The intrusions have triggered a major India-China military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Tokyo and Hanoi.
There are important parallels between the way China is pursuing its territorial revisionism against its two main rivals in Asia, Japan and India. Indeed, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition and containment against both.
More fundamentally, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive territorial claims in Asia on the basis of revisionist history, not international law. Its weak legal case was highlighted by an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling that invalidated its claims in the South China Sea.
In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. There is absolutely no evidence that China ever had effective control over, for example, the Senkaku Islands.
In fact, China began claiming the Senkakus only after a United Nation agency’s report in 1969 referred to the possible existence of oil reserves in the East China Sea. It was not until the early 1970s that Chinese documents began applying the name “Diaoyu” to the Senkakus and claiming they were part of China.
Sinicizing the names of territories it claims is an old tactic of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP’s record also reveals its penchant to create a dispute out of the blue by claiming that the territory it covets was part of China since ancient times.
Under Xi, China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace have steadily intensified, not just in frequency but also with the entry of larger vessels and armed ships. In recent months, China has sought to even police the waters off the Senkakus.
If history is not to be repeated, Suga should draw some lessons, including from the record of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
The first lesson is that establishing better relations with Beijing doesn’t necessarily yield better Chinese behavior. Xi’s aggressive revisionism is unaffected by diplomatic progress.
For example, Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing was instrumental in helping improve ties with China. Yet the ensuing diplomatic progress, far from reining in China’s aggressive actions, engendered increasing Chinese intrusions, including the longest series of incursions into Japanese waters in years.
A second lesson is that responding with notable restraint to China’s belligerence only encourages Beijing to further up the ante. Consider the startling fact that no Japanese defense minister has ever conducted an aerial survey of the Senkakus. In August, the then-defense minister, Taro Kono, decided to break that taboo but then backed off “so as not to provoke China.”
Such shrinking from purely defensive action explains why an emboldened China has stepped up incursions. Japan needs to strengthen its administrative and security control over the Senkakus.
A third lesson relates to China’s strategy. Deception, concealment and surprise are central to China’s strategy to win without fighting. It adheres to the ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.”
This approach involves taking an adversary by surprise, including seizing an opportunistic timing, and camouflaging offense as defense.
China’s war of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus has already disturbed the status quo, including by making the international community recognize the existence of a dispute and by regularizing Chinese incursions. China persists with its recklessly provocative actions, including ignoring the risk that an incident could spiral out of control.
A fourth lesson is that as long as China perceives strategic benefits as outweighing costs, Xi will persist with his strategy of attrition against Japan. Xi’s strategy is imposing greater security costs on Japan than on China.
Against this background, a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could conceivably come when Japan has been lulled into complacency and least expects an attack. This is what happened to India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not see the Chinese aggression coming because his vision had been clouded by the naive hope that, by meeting Xi 18 times in about five years, he had reset the bilateral relationship.
China’s aim against Japan is to progressively alter the territorial status quo in its favor. Despite the Suga-Xi understanding, Chinese provocations could escalate.
Japan has spent years being on the defensive, allowing China to keep the initiative. It is past time for Tokyo to come out of its reactive mode and turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively. It must frustrate China’s strategy of incrementally altering the status quo without incurring substantive costs.
Japan ought to look at ways to impose costs. This could include first warning Beijing that its provocative actions, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels within Japanese territorial waters, would henceforth be firmly countered. If provocative actions persist despite the warning, the Japan Coast Guard could selectively act against some intruding Chinese state ships.
To be sure, effectively countering Chinese incursions demands more than ramming or disabling intruding ships and detaining their crews. It calls for an important shift in Japan’s policies, including building defensive facilities in the Senkakus. Japan could begin modestly by building an environmental monitoring station in the Senkakus.
China, of course, will react furiously to any Japanese counteractions. But at a time when the international environment is turning hostile to Xi’s expansionism, Japan must display strength and resolve. If not, China will bring Japanese security under increasing pressure in the coming years.
Japan has a strong case, anchored in international law, that it has exercised sovereignty over the Senkakus since 1895. But make no mistake: The future of the Senkakus will not be decided by international law, even though a just, rules-based order is essential for international peace and security.
The South China Sea is a reminder that international law is powerless against the powerful. China has turned its contrived historical claims in the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite the international tribunal’s ruling against it.
Japan undoubtedly faces hard choices. But accommodation with an unyielding China is simply not possible.
Without concrete counteractions, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism. To stop its security from coming under siege, Japan must act — with calm, confidence and firmness.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
For Xi Jinping, the COVID-19 pandemic – which has preoccupied the world’s governments for months – seemed like an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his expansionist agenda. But by provoking India, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face.
Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire.
For Xi, the COVID-19 pandemic – which has preoccupied the world’s governments for months – seemed like an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his agenda. So, in April and May, he directed the People’s Liberation Army to launch furtive incursions into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region, where it proceeded to establish heavily fortified encampments.
It wasn’t nearly as clever a plan as Xi probably thought. Far from entrenching China’s regional preeminence, it has intensified the pushback by Indo-Pacific powers, which have deepened their security cooperation. This includes China’s most powerful competitor, the United States, thereby escalating a bilateral strategic confrontation that has technological, economic, diplomatic, and military dimensions. The specter of international isolation and supply disruptions now looms over China, spurring Xi to announce plans to hoard mammoth quantities of mineral resources and agricultural products.
But Xi’s real miscalculation on the Himalayan border was vis-à-vis India, which has now abandoned its appeasement policy toward China. Not surprisingly, China remains committed to the PLA’s incursions, which it continues to portray as defensive: late last month, Xi told senior officials to “solidify border defenses” and “ensure frontier security” in the Himalayan region.
India, however, is ready to fight. In June, after the PLA ambushed and killed Indian soldiers patrolling Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, a hand-to-hand confrontation led to the deaths of numerous Chinese troops – the first PLA troops killed in action outside United Nations peacekeeping operations in over four decades. Xi was so embarrassed by this outcome that, whereas India honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, China refuses to admit its precise death toll.
The truth is that, without the element of surprise, China is not equipped to dominate India in a military confrontation. And India is making sure that it will not be caught off guard again. It has now matched Chinese military deployments along the Himalayan frontier and activated its entire logistics network to transport the supplies needed to sustain the troops and equipment through the coming harsh winter.
In another blow to China, Indian special forces recently occupied strategic mountain positions overlooking key Chinese deployments on the southern side of Pangong Lake. Unlike the PLA, which prefers to encroach on undefended border areas, Indian forces carried out their operation right under China’s nose, in the midst of a major PLA buildup.
If that were not humiliating enough for China, India eagerly noted that the Special Frontier Force that spearheaded the operation comprises Tibetan refugees. The Tibetan soldier who was killed by a landmine in the operation was honored with a well-attended military funeral.
India’s message was clear: China’s claims to Tibet, which separated India and China until Mao Zedong’s regime annexed it in 1951, are not nearly as strong as it pretends they are. Tibetans view China as a brutally repressive occupying power, and those eager to fight the occupiers flocked to the Frontier Force, established after Mao’s 1962 war with India.
Here’s the rub: China’s claims to India’s vast Himalayan borderlands are based on their alleged historical links to Tibet. If China is merely occupying Tibet, how can it claim sovereignty over those borderlands?
In any case, Xi’s latest effort to gain control of territories that aren’t China’s to take has proved far more difficult to complete than it was to launch. As China’s actions in the South China Sea demonstrate, Xi prefers asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, which combines conventional and irregular tactics with psychological and media manipulation, disinformation, lawfare, and coercive diplomacy.
But while Xi managed to change the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot, it seems clear that this will not work on China’s Himalayan border. Instead, Xi’s approach has placed the Sino-Indian relationship – crucial to regional stability – on a knife edge. Xi wants neither to back down nor to wage an open war, which is unlikely to yield the decisive victory he needs to restore his reputation after the border debacle.
China might have the world’s largest active-duty military force, but India’s is also massive. More important, India’s battle-hardened forces have experience in low-intensity conflicts at high altitudes; the PLA, by contrast, has had no combat experience since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Given this, a Sino-Indian war in the Himalayas would probably end in a stalemate, with both sides suffering heavy losses.
Xi seems to be hoping that he can simply wear India down. At a time when the Indian economy has registered its worst-ever contraction due to the still-escalating COVID-19 crisis, Xi has forced India to divert an increasing share of resources to national defense. Meanwhile, ceasefire violations by Pakistan, China’s close ally, have increased to a record high, raising the specter of a two-front war for India. As some Chinese military analysts have suggested, Xi could use America’s preoccupation with its coming presidential election to carry out a quick, localized strike against India without seeking to start a war.
But it seems less likely that India will wilt under Chinese pressure than that Xi will leave behind a legacy of costly blunders. With his Himalayan misadventure, Xi has provoked a powerful adversary and boxed himself into a corner.
A common Indian refrain today is that China has betrayed India’s friendship. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Did India really draw enduring lessons from 1962? If so, how does it explain being “stabbed in the back” again by China?
Successive Indian governments have put more faith in diplomacy than the armed forces in achieving security objectives. Diplomacy can accomplish little in the absence of strategic vision and resolve or adequate leverage. The diplomatic blunders of 1948 (Kashmir dispute’s internationalization), 1954 (Panchsheel Agreement’s acceptance of the “Tibet region of China”), 1960 (Indus Waters Treaty), 1966 (Taskhent) and 1972 (Simla) have imposed enduring costs.
Worse still, India has learned little from its past, which explains why history repeats itself. Today, with China’s multi-thrust aggression, which caught India napping, history is repeating itself, underscored by a common Indian refrain that Beijing has betrayed India’s friendship.
China’s latest “stab in the back” raises key questions, not about the communist dictatorship in Beijing (which has made a practice of employing deception, concealment and surprise in peacetime), but about India. What explains India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity over the decades that highlights the aphorism, “act in haste, repent at leisure”? Why has India repeatedly cried betrayal, not by friends, but by adversaries in whom it reposed trust?
Why has Indian diplomacy, time after time, rushed to believe what it wanted to believe? Or what makes India keep repeating the cycle of bending over backward to court a foe and then failing to see aggression coming (as in Kargil, Pathankot or Doklam)? More fundamentally, why does India stay at the receiving end of its foes’ machinations and always play the victim? For example, why has it never repaid China with its own “salami slicing”?
One reason history repeats itself is that virtually every Indian prime minister, although unschooled in national security at the time of assuming office, has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel, rather than learn from past blunders. Another reason is that Indian intellectuals and journalists generally shrink from closely scrutinizing foreign-policy moves.
Overselling outcomes of summit meetings with China from 1988 to 2019 for leadership glorification has led to India’s worst China crisis after the 1962 war. For example, five separate border-management agreements were signed at summits between 1993 and 2013, with each accord hailed in India (but not China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.”
Now India admits China has trashed all those agreements with its aggression. Yet India still plays into China’s hands by clinging to the accords and by agreeing recently in Moscow to build on them through new confidence-building measures (CBMs).
China is showing it is a master in protracting negotiations so as to buy time to consolidate its territorial gains, while exploring the limits of its adversary’s flexibility and testing its patience. For Beijing, any agreement is designed to bind not China but the other side to its terms. It is seeking fresh CBMs to make India respect the new, Chinese-created territorial status quo and to restrict India from upgrading its border infrastructure.
China’s foreign minister claims the “consensus” reached at Moscow is to “meet each other halfway.” Meeting China halfway will validate its “10 miles forward, 5 miles back” strategy, with China gaining half but India losing half. This illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.
Yet India has placed its faith in diplomacy ever since it discovered China’s intrusions in early May. It reined in its armed forces from taking counteractions until recently. Had it permitted proactive countermeasures earlier, once sufficient acclimatized troops and weapons capability were in place, China’s territorial gains would have been more limited.
China used the talks with India to make additional encroachments, especially on the critical Depsang Y-Junction, which controls access to several areas. Of all the land grabs China has made, the largest is in Depsang, the sector of utmost importance to Indian defences. Yet this encroachment has received little attention.
In fact, some are drawing a false equivalence between the Chinese and Indian military actions to obscure the reality. While China has seized several areas that traditionally were under Indian patrolling jurisdiction, India has occupied its own unmanned mountain heights in one area in order to pre-empt another Chinese land grab.
The defence minister’s statement in Parliament, however, shows the government remains loath to admit that China has encroached on Indian areas. Shielding the government’s image, alas, comes first. This explains why India hasn’t labelled China the aggressor, leaving the field open for China to repeatedly call India the aggressor.
Having redrawn the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in several Ladakh sectors, including Pangong, Gogra-Kongka La, Hot Springs and Galwan, China is now seeking to replace the term LAC with the looser expression “border areas.” It had its way in the Moscow agreement, which repeatedly mentions “border areas,” not LAC (a line unambiguously marked in Indian military maps and up to which Indian forces are supposed to defend all territory).
All the boundary-related bilateral accords and protocols are LAC-centred. But China, signalling its aggressive designs, stopped referring to the term LAC in recent years. Instead it is quietly treating the LAC as a line to actually control by changing facts on the ground.The Moscow agreement’s use of the vague term “border areas” helps to obscure China’s encroachments and creates space for continued Chinese salami slicing.
In this light, diplomacy is unlikely to deliver the status quo ante India seeks. In fact, China seems intent on continuing, below the threshold of armed conflict, coercive military pressure along the entire frontier from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh until India acquiesces to its demands, including reconciling to the new status quo.
Will China’s win-without-fighting warfare campaign help create a new India steeped in realism and determined to break the cycle of history repeating itself? At a minimum, it promises to shake up India’s business-as-usual approach to national security.
On the day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, Chinese officials signed an economic and technical cooperation accord with Afghanistan’s then-ruling Taliban, in the latter’s capital, Kandahar. The 9/11 attacks led the United States, in partnership with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, to launch a military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime.
Now, China is again courting the Taliban to further its regional interests, centered primarily on safeguarding its Belt and Road projects, extracting mineral resources in Afghanistan, and preventing a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Muslims for “re-education” in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds in the post-World War II period.
The U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China’s efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with Taliban representatives as President Donald Trump’s administration has steadily cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 and closed several bases.
Trump, calling the U.S. military involvement in war zones “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country,” has said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by U.S. election day in November. The Pentagon, however, says further troop withdrawals would depend on the Taliban’s honoring of its peace deal with the U.S.
In order to win the Taliban’s cooperation, China is reportedly offering to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories, as well as a number of energy projects, including generating electricity.
Here’s the paradox: Communist China has little in common with the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militia known for brutal, medieval practices and for demolishing the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact, China’s concern over Islamic extremism has driven it to take unparalleled steps, including the large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities in a bid to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population into the dominant Han culture.
Yet China has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban — created and armed by Pakistani intelligence — to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, China established economic ties with it and launched flights between Kabul and Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
Pakistan, which Beijing considers its client-state, has helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties. Indeed, the Taliban’s top leadership, as well as its command and control apparatus, have been ensconced in Pakistan since it was ousted from power in 2001. This allowed China, after 9/11, to quietly continue a relationship with the Taliban.
Such long-standing ties with the Taliban, and a strong strategic nexus with Pakistan, have helped China avert any major terrorist strike on its projects in Afghanistan, including the large Aynak copper mine it secured in 2007. By contrast, Indian infrastructure projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly come under terrorist attack.
China’s latest overtures to the Taliban underscore its concern that the U.S. military withdrawal could foster greater violence and instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which has long been a terrorism nucleus. Beijing wants to safeguard its heavy investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the supposed crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also wants to ensure the Taliban do not aid Uighur militants.
America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban was sealed in February with Pakistan’s active support. The fact that no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens compelled the Trump administration to sue for peace in order to end the longest war in U.S. history.
Less known is that China also played a part in the peace effort by encouraging the Taliban to enter into a deal with the U.S. Indeed, even before Trump took office, Beijing offered to mediate and help revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.
In return, the U.S. last year heeded Beijing’s call to designate the Balochistan Liberation Army, the main separatist group in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. justified its designation on the grounds that the BLA was striking Chinese targets in Balochistan, which is home to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and a potential Chinese naval base.
Since then, relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated to a point approaching a new Cold War. Making matters worse, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to be tottering, with Washington accusing the Taliban of repeatedly violating the accord’s terms, including by launching rockets last month at two military bases used by American forces and by stepping up terror attacks on Afghan government forces. Hopes of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in Afghanistan have dimmed.
Against this background, China, despite its ties with the Taliban, is likely to find it difficult to advance its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.
Several factors threaten to act as spoilers to China’s regional ambitions, including sharpening geopolitics, a resurgent Taliban — some of whose local commanders appear to be operating independently — and the role of non-Taliban militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that are the nemesis of Pakistani intelligence. Irrespective of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks uncertain.
In this conservative region, China’s Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang are likely to fuel grassroots resentment against it, increasing the vulnerability of its projects.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
As the past weekend’s latest skirmishes between rival troops underscore, relations between the demographic titans, China and India, have hit a low not seen since their 1962 war. The two countries haveforward-deployedtens of thousands of troops and are now locked in a tense military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Toronto and Los Angeles.
The clash of the titans, triggered by a series of furtive Chinese encroachments on key vantage points in India’s northernmost borderlands, has received limited international attention. However, the spectre of further troop clashes or a 1962-style Himalayan war continues to loom, despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces.
The confrontation highlights Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular revisionism, which has led him to open multiple fronts simultaneously – from the South and East China seas and the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Xi’s expansionism hasn’t spared the tiny country of Bhutan.
While India was wrestling with the outbreak of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown, China carried out swift and well co-ordinated incursions into the borderlands of India’s high-altitude Ladakh region from late April. Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy, even in peacetime. The aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Mr. Xi declared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
China’s intrusions into Ladakh differ from its previous Asian territorial grabs under Mr. Xi in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country’s nose.
The territorial expansion in the South China Sea by China,for example, has centred on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands. Since Mr. Xi ordered the launch of major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.
In 2017, China captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop faceoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor.
This summer, Mr. Xi’s communist regime laid claim to another 11 per cent of Bhutan territory, in an area that can be accessed only through India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus sought to advance Mr. Xi’s efforts against both Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the East China Sea, meanwhile, China has stepped up incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters and airspace, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening its own sovereignty claims. By bringing Japan’s security increasingly under pressure, China is signalling that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its aggressive revisionism.
Against this background, Mr. Xi’s aggression against India appears to mark the start of a more daring new phase in his expansionism. As U.S. national security advisor Robert O’Brien has said, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately.
The Chinese encroachments have led to multiple rounds of clashes with Indian troops in Ladakh. The deadliest occurred on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. While India honoured its fallen as martyrs, China still refuses to divulge its losses. U.S. intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India.
Mr. Xi’s Himalayan expansionism has sought to take off from where Mao Zedong left. Mao considered Tibet (which he annexed in 1951) to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Bhutan, Nepal and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. The five fingers were also to be “liberated.” In fact, Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China to gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin plateau.
As long as Mr. Xi, like Mao, perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism.
But by seeking to start the world’s next big conflict with India, Mr. Xi is likely to end up pushing that country closer to the United States and creating an adversarial bloc around China. Already, international attitudes toward Mr. Xi’s regime have hardened and many countries and companies have begun re-evaluating China-dependent supply chains for essential goods.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
As long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Chinese President Xi Jinping will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.
In his most recent New Year’s speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that 2020 would be “a milestone.” Xi was right, but not in the way he expected. Far from having “friends in every corner of the world,” as he boasted in his speech, China has severely damaged its international reputation, alienated its partners, and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. Whether the prospect of isolation thwarts Xi’s imperialist ambitions, however, remains to be seen.
Historians will most likely view 2020 as a watershed year. Thanks to COVID-19, many countries learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains, and international attitudes toward China’s communist regime shifted.
The tide began to turn when it was revealed that the Communist Party of China hid crucial information from the world about COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan – a finding confirmed by a recent US intelligence report. Making matters worse, Xi attempted to capitalize on the pandemic, first by hoarding medical products – a market China dominates – and then by stepping up aggressive expansionism, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. This is driving rapid change in the region’s geostrategic landscape, with other powers preparing to counter China.
For starters, Japan now seems set to begin cooperating with the Five Eyes – the world’s oldest intelligence-gathering and -sharing alliance, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A new “Six Eyes” alliance would serve as a crucial pillar of Indo-Pacific security.
Moreover, the so-called Quad – comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the US – seems poised to deepen its strategic collaboration. This represents a notable shift for India, in particular, which has spent years attempting to appease China.
As US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien recently noted, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately. Since late April, the People’s Liberation Army has occupied several areas in the northern Indian region of Ladakh, turning up the heat on a long-simmering border conflict. This has left Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with little choice but to change course.
Modi is considering inviting Australia to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise with Japanese, American, and Indian forces later this year. Australia withdrew from the exercise in 2008 when it involved only the US and India. Although Japan’s participation was regularized in 2015, India had hesitated to bring Australia back into the fold, for fear of provoking China. Not anymore. With Australia again involved in Malabar, the Quad grouping will have a formal, practical platform for naval drills.
Already, cooperation among Quad members is gaining some strategic heft. In June, Australia and India signed the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement to increase military interoperability through bilateral defense activities. India has a similar pact with the US and is set to sign one with Japan shortly.
Japan, for its part, recently added Australia, India, and the UK as defense intelligence sharing partners by tweaking its 2014 state secrets law, which previously included exchanges only with the US. This will strengthen Japanese security cooperation under 2016 legislation that redefined Japan’s US-imposed pacifist post-war constitution in such a way that Japan may now come to the aid of allies under attack.
Thus, the Indo-Pacific’s democracies are forging closer strategic bonds in response to China’s increasing aggression. The next logical step would be for these countries to play a more concerted, coordinated role in advancing broader regional security. The problem is that American, Australian, Indian, and Japanese security interests are not entirely congruent.
For India and Japan, the security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate, as shown by China’s aggression against India and its increasingly frequent incursions into Japanese waters. Moreover, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defense posture, and it faces the very real prospect of a serious conflict with China on its Himalayan border.
The US, by contrast, has never considered a land war against China. Its primary objective is to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological, and economic challenges to America’s global preeminence. America’s pursuit of this objective will be President Donald Trump’s most-consequential foreign-policy legacy.
Australia, meanwhile, must engage in a delicate balancing act. While it wants to safeguard its values and regional stability, it remains economically dependent on China, which accounts for one-third of its exports. So, even as Australia has pursued closer ties with the Quad, it has spurned US calls to join naval patrols in the South China Sea. As its foreign minister, Marise Payne, recently declared, Australia has “no intention of injuring” its relationship with China.
If China continues pursuing an expansionist strategy, however, such hedging will no longer be justifiable. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono recently declared that the “consensus in the international community” is that China must be “made to pay a high price” for its muscular revisionism in the South and East China seas, the Himalayas, and Hong Kong. He is right – the emphasis is on “high.”
As long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Xi will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.
Machiavelli famously wrote that, “It is better to be feared than loved.” Xi is not feared so much as hated. But that will mean little unless the Indo-Pacific’s major democracies get their act together, devise ways to stem Chinese expansionism, reconcile their security strategies, and contribute to building a rules-based regional order. Their vision must be clarified and translated into a well-defined policy approach, backed with real strategic weight. Otherwise, Xi will continue to use brute force to destabilize the Indo-Pacific further, possibly even starting a war.
China’s expansionist drive, from the East and South China seas to the Himalayas and the southern Pacific, is making the Indo-Pacific region more volatile and unstable. Along with the spread of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus, this has also given rise to growing anti-China sentiment.
China’s border aggression against India since April dovetails with a broader strategy of territorial aggrandizement that it has pursued in the period since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. That strategy, centered on winning without fighting, has driven its bullet-less aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And since launching major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.
However, China’s aggression in the northern Indian region of Ladakh – a high-altitude territory where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has occupied several vantage points – differs from its previous territorial grabs since the 1980s in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country’s nose.
China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, for example, has centered on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands.
In 2017, the PLA similarly captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop standoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor.
China’s aggression has also extended to persistent nibbling at its neighbors’ border territories. Bite by bite, China has been eating away at its neighbors’ borderlands. In Nepal, ruled by a pro-Beijing communist government, a recently leaked internal report warned that the country was losing border territories to China’s construction projects, which it said were also changing the course of rivers.
In the East China Sea, China has stepped up incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters and airspace, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening its own sovereignty claims. By bringing Japan’s security increasingly under pressure, China is indicating that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its muscular revisionism.
But even by the PLA’s longstanding practice of “salami slicing,” its recent aggression against India signals that China’s territorial expansionism has entered a dangerous new phase. In an operation backed by tens of thousands of troops in the rear, the PLA brazenly seized border areas that were under another country’s military control or patrolling jurisdiction.
Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy even in peacetime. The aggression in Indian Ladakh came just six months after Chinese President Xi Jinpingdeclared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development,” thus allowing both sides to “focus on friendship and cooperation.”
Xi caught India off-guard by striking when that country was wrestling with the outbreak of the coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown. China intruded into areas located even beyond its own artificially drawn claim lines that it has published in the past.
This helps to highlight China’s increasing territorial predation under Xi. Beijing has repeatedly shown that it can make a new territorial claim or disturb the status quo anywhere at any time.
For example, Beijing has asserted a new claim since July to Bhutan’s eastern region, which shares a border only with India. Through the new claim, China has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against India and Bhutan, which popularized the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of development.
Recently, Chinese state media suddenly discovered that Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains historically “belong to China.” Earlier in May, the state-run media claimed that Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak on the Nepal-Tibet border that symbolizes Nepalese sovereignty, was wholly in China.
Last month, a Chinese government ship conducted marine research activity in the exclusive economic zone of Okinotori Island, Japan’s southernmost point. When Tokyo protested, Beijing asserted that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to an EEZ] has no legal basis” as Okinotori was not an island but just rocks.
The Chinese Communist Party’s old practice is to stealthily occupy another nation’s territory and then claim the area was part of China since ancient times. Having recently caught India napping by encroaching, among others, on the Tibet-bordering Galwan Valley in Ladakh, China now claims that the entire valley’s sovereignty “has always belonged to China.”
China, however, became India’s neighbor only in 1951 after the CCP under Mao Zedong gobbled up the traditional buffer Tibet. The fall of Tibet increased China’s landmass by more than one-third. It also gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and northernmost Myanmar.
Xi has sought to take off from where Mao left. Simply put, Xi is working on Mao’s unfinished agenda of territorial expansionism.
This explains the multiple fronts Xi has opened in the pursuit of his “Chinese dream” of making China the world’s foremost power by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. The fronts he has opened extend from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China seas and the Himalayas.
As long as Xi perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism. But he is already sowing the seeds of an international backlash. Such a pushback will likely constrict China’s choices, making his “Chinese dream” more difficult to realize.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
By occupying key vantage points in eastern Ladakh in an operation backed by tens of thousands of troops in the rear, China has entered a dangerous new phase in its territorial expansionism. It has brazenly seized areas that were under India’s military control or patrolling jurisdiction.
In fact, China intruded into areas located beyond any claim line it has ever published, including its 1956, 1959 and 1960 claim lines in Ladakh. Demonstrating ever-expanding claims, its forces intruded into the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La region and the Depsang Y-Junction and also right up to Galwan River’s mouth and up to Pangong Lake’s Finger 4.
India, facing up to what its defence ministry calls “unilateral aggression,” has made it amply clear to China that it will settle for nothing less than a full return to status quo ante. India’s message to Beijing is that refusing to roll back its encroachments will cast a growing shadow over the bilateral relationship. Publicly, too, India has cautioned that China’s border hostilities will damage bilateral ties.
There has been no national debate, however, on India’s options to restore status quo ante. China seems determined to hold on to its territorial gains, which explains its statement that disengagement is mostly over. Indeed, it has used military and diplomatic talks to demand Indian acquiescence in the new status quo. The protracted talks have also helped it to consolidate its hold on the land grabs, including by building fortifications and installing fibre optic cables.
China has achieved its territorial gains in the same way it made territorial grabs elsewhere in Asia since the 1980s — below the threshold of armed conflict, without firing a shot. Today, it is trying to dictate a Hobson’s choice to India, like it did when it captured Doklam: Go along with the changed status quo or risk an open war. Believing time is on its side, China is seeking to wear India out in order to present a fait accompli.
Against this background, India’s options are clearly narrowing. The longer India has waited, the harder it has become to militarily push back the intruding Chinese forces and restore status quo ante. Imagine if India had dealt with China’s incursions as soon as it discovered them in early May, instead of restraining its forces and entering into unproductive talks. Indian efforts to obscure the intrusions and troop clashes only led to newer Chinese encroachments. As an August 4 defence ministry note points out, China made fresh intrusions into Kugrang, Gogra and Pangong on May 17-18.
India has the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare. Contrary to conventional wisdom that China holds a significant military advantage, several recent international assessments underscore that India’s air and ground forces have a qualitative edge over the People’s Liberation Army. India’s weakness is a reactive and risk-averse strategic culture.
India’s failure to employ its counterattack capability undermined its negotiating position. Instead of a “seize, hold and talk” strategy to clinch an equitable deal, India brought little to the negotiating table, thus allowing China to reinforce its bargaining power. This is apparent from China’s absurd new demands that India further retreat from Pangong and vacate the Kugrang heights.
India now faces crunch time. If it is not going to end up validating China’s forcible realignment of the Line of Actual Control, India must inflict substantive costs on the aggressor. Imposing significant economic and diplomatic costs, coupled with the application of coercive military pressure, holds the key. India must speak from a position of strength. Its professional, battle-hardened armed forces, coupled with its trade and diplomatic leverage, give it that strength.
The only way China will roll back its aggression is if India begins exacting mounting costs that make its territorial gains unbeneficial to hold. The costs India has sought to impose thus far have proved woefully inadequate to make Beijing end its aggression.
A calibrated imposition of progressively escalating costs has become imperative. Economically, India’s main steps thus far — banning Chinese mobile apps and restricting Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts — need to be supplemented with informal trade sanctions.Chinese exports to India are still running at more than $5 billion a month, with July witnessing a surge. Now is the time for India to leverage its buying power to correct its massive trade deficit with China.
At a time when the international environment is turning hostile to China’s ambitions, India must launch a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese aggression. India’s reticence to name and shame China seems unfathomable. Even amid its aggression, China has had no hesitation in raking up the Jammu and Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council.
As a warning shot across Beijing’s bow, India should rescind its 2006 decision allowing China to reopen its consulate in Kolkata, given China’s designs on the Siliguri Corridor. That decision was made despite Beijing’s refusal to let India reopen its Lhasa consulate. The Kolkata and Lhasa consulates were shut following Mao Zedong’s 1962 war against India.
Meanwhile, the highest-level visit by a US cabinet official to Taiwan since 1979 has served as an example for India to loosen its own one-China policy by living up to then Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s promise in 2014 — that the one-China policy would henceforth be predicated on China’s adoption of a one-India policy. For starters, the prime minister may like to meet the Dalai Lama and say he sought the Tibetan leader’s counsel regarding China.
India, subscribing to hard-nosed realpolitik, has no choice but to impose costs that cumulatively outweigh Beijing’s aggression gains. Without such a course, China could not only escape scot-free but also reap rewards of aggression and become a bigger threat.
Beijing’s stealth aggression against India along the Himalayan border represents a geostrategic sea change. Given China’s stepped-up incursions in or near Japanese waters, this has serious implications for Japan as well.
As part of President Xi Jinping’s aggressive expansionism, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition, friction and containment against Japan and India — its two potential peer rivals in Asia — in order to harass, encumber and weigh them down. This includes China’s efforts to police the waters off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in recent months in order to weaken Japan’s control and strengthen its own sovereignty claims.
More broadly, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive claims on the basis of an ingenious principle — “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.” This has been underscored by China’s newly minted claim to tiny Bhutan’s eastern region, which shares a border only with India. Perhaps the only time since the end of World War II that one state has laid claim to territory that can only be accessed via another country, China has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against Bhutan and India.
And when Tokyo lodged a protest last month after a Chinese government ship conducted marine research activity in the exclusive economic zone off Japan’s southernmost point, Beijing responded that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to an EEZ there] has no legal basis.” Some in China are even questioning Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa.
China’s various territorial claims, from the East China Sea to the Himalayas, are based not on international law but on alleged history. The Chinese Communist Party’s practice is to furtively occupy another nation’s territory and then claim that the captured area was part of China since ancient times.
Japan could learn from the CCP’s practices and from India’s mistakes that made it the target of China’s latest aggression. After all, China’s strategy against Japan is fairly similar to the one it is pursuing against India.
Incremental advances by stealth below the threshold of war are integral to China’s strategy. Admiral Philip Davidson warned in 2018 before taking over as the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander that China was likely to continue “to coerce Japan without sparking a crisis or conflict.”
The first lesson for Japan is that China’s aggressive actions bear no relation to the state of bilateral ties with the country it targets, as shown by the fact that the Chinese aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Xi declared during an India visit that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
Another sign that the CCP’s revanchism is unaffected by ostensible improvements in bilateral relations was the 2019 increase in Chinese incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace compared to the previous year.
Attempts to placate Beijing also tend to backfire. After Narendra Modi became Indian prime minister in 2014, he bent over backward to befriend China, including delisting it as a “country of concern” and halting official contact with the Dalai Lama. For nearly six years, Modi ignored all warning signs, including a rising tide of Chinese incursions, especially into Ladakh, and China’s capture of the Bhutan-claimed Doklam Plateau following a 73-day standoff with Indian troops there.
There is a cautionary tale for Japan here. Tokyo, since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing, has emphasized improving ties with Beijing and responded with conspicuous restraint to the longest series of Chinese incursions into Japanese waters in years.
After its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, China developed a strategy of winning without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven its bulletless aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
And now China occupies several vantage points in Indian Ladakh, perhaps following ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” by striking when a distracted India was busy wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak.
All of which suggests that a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could come when Japan least expects it.
India’s deeply rooted reactive culture has allowed China to keep the initiative, including when and how to needle India or infringe its sovereignty. Japan, too, has spent years being on the defensive and must come out of its reactive and pacifist mode to safeguard its long-term security. A more secure Japan will also help underpin peace in the Indo-Pacific region.
Today, Japan needs to deal with a more immediate challenge. Once the China-set suspension of fishing around the Senkaku Islands ends on August 16, Chinese provocations could escalate, with the possible entry of many Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships. After all, China’s aim is to progressively alter the status quo in its favor.
It is past time for Tokyo to turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively, including disabling Chinese state ships and detaining their crews when they engage in provocative activities, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels. Otherwise, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
As long as the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, it will persist with territorial expansionism and none of China’s neighbors will be safe. The Chinese communists, to use a quote from the Bible, are like “greedy dogs which can never have enough.”
As the world struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in China, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing his quest for regional dominance more aggressively than ever. From the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Tibet to the South and East China Seas, Xi seems to be picking up where Mao Zedong left off, with little fear of international retribution.
The parallels between Xi and the despots of the past are obvious. He has overseen a brutal crackdown on dissent, engineered the effective demise of the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong, filled concentration camps and detention centers with Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province, and laid the groundwork to remain president for life.
According to US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, “Xi sees himself as Joseph Stalin’s successor.” Many others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.” But it is Mao – the People’s Republic’s founding father, and the twentieth century’s most prolific butcher – to whom Xi bears the closest resemblance.
For starters, Xi has cultivated a Mao-style personality cult. In 2017, the Communist Party of China enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The ideology is inspired by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but its inclusion in the CPC’s constitution makes Xi the third Chinese leader – after Mao and the architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaoping – to be mentioned in the document. Last December, the CPC also conferred upon Xi a new title: renmin lingxiu, or “people’s leader” – a label associated with Mao.
Now, Xi is working to complete Mao’s expansionist vision. Mao’s China annexed Xinjiang and Tibet, more than doubling the country’s territory and making it the world’s fourth largest by area. Its annexation of resource-rich Tibet, in particular, represented one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, not least because it gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northernmost Myanmar.
In fact, Mao considered Tibet to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Nepal, Bhutan, and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh – that China was also meant to “liberate.” Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin region.
This past April and May, Xi had the People’s Liberation Army carry out a series of well-coordinated incursions into Ladakh, with the intruding forces setting up heavily fortified encampments. He then deployed tens of thousands of troops along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) with Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.
This “incredibly aggressive action,” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it, led to bloody clashes in Ladakh on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. (US intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India, but whereas India has honored its fallen as martyrs, China has refused to divulge its losses.) Despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces, the specter of further clashes or a war continues to loom.
The CPC has not forgotten about the other two fingers, Bhutan and Nepal. Just as China and India began withdrawing troops from the site of the June 15 clashes, Beijing opened another front in its bid for territorial expansion, asserting a new claim in Bhutan.
In 2017, China occupied the Doklam Plateau – at the intersection of Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and claimed by the latter – following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. Now, China is laying claim to another 11% of the tiny kingdom’s territory, in an area that can be accessed only through Arunachal Pradesh (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus advances Xi’s efforts against two of the five fingers simultaneously.
The fifth “finger,” Nepal, has been drifting away from India and toward China since it came under communist rule two and a half years ago. Indeed, China aided the Nepalese communists’ victory, including by unifying rival factions and funding their election campaign. Since then, China has openly meddled in the country’s fractious politics, in order to keep the ruling party intact, with its ambassador acting as if she were Nepal’s matriarch.
But being in China’s strategic orbit has done nothing to protect Nepal from the CPC’s territorial predation. Last month, a leaked Nepalese agricultural department report warned that China’s massive road-development projects have expanded China’s boundary into northern territories of Nepal and changed the course of rivers.
Of course, altering Asia’s water map is nothing new for China. Tibet is the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems. This has facilitated China’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern historical parallel. Today, Chinese-built mega-dams near the borders of the Tibetan Plateau give the country leverage over downstream countries.
As the hand metaphor indicates, Tibet is the key to China’s territorial claims in the Himalayan region – and not only because of geography. China cannot claim the five fingers on the basis of any Han-Chinese connection. Instead, it points to alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, even though Tibet was part of China only when China itself had been conquered by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchus. Chinese current claims are nothing more than a power (and resource) grab.
In other words, the five-fingers strategy, coupled with Chinese expansionism elsewhere, is all about upholding the world’s longest-running autocracy. As long as the CPC – and especially the revisionist Xi – holds a monopoly on power, none of China’s neighbors will be safe.
China’s territorial revisionism has been unrelenting. Under Mao Zedong, China more than doubled its size by annexing Tibet and Xinjiang, making it the world’s fourth largest country in area. Under Xi Jinping, China’s expansionism increasingly threatens its neighbours, big and small. Xi’s regime has just opened a new territorial front against one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, by disputing its eastern borders.
In this light, the outcome of China’s aggression against India will have an important bearing on Asian security. If the current India-China military disengagement ends up like the 2017 Doklam disengagement in making China the clear winner, an emboldened Xi regime will likely become a greater threat to neighbours.
China’s strategy after its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam has been to win without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven China’s repeated use of force — from seizing the Johnson Reef in 1988 and the Mischief Reef in 1995 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and now vantage locations in Ladakh. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs.
China has displayed its art of deception even in its disengagement process with India. The first accord of June 6 to disengage collapsed after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) erected structures on Indian territory and then ambushed and killed Indian Army men on verification patrol. The disengagement process restarted after Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to let China off the hook with his June 19 speech at the all-party meeting. But the fresh process became a ruse for PLA to encroach on two new Indian areas — the Depsang Y-Junction; and the Galwan Valley site of the ambush killings.
India and China are now in their third disengagement series. But while the previous two abortive rounds followed military-level talks, the latest cycle is being driven politically. We now know that Modi’s July 3 Ladakh visit, and his tough words there, were essentially designed to create domestic political space for his government to seek de-escalation with China. Barely 48 hours after his visit, India and China hammered out a disengagement deal.
Will the latest deal stick? Having encroached on key areas that overlook India’s defences, PLA is sitting pretty. A full return to status quo ante as sought by India seems remote, thanks to India’s own mixed signals. Moreover, by encroaching on additional areas behind the previous disengagement facade, China has armed itself with greater leverage to impose a revised status quo, including by applying the precept that “possession is nine-tenths of the law”.
Disengagement (pullback of rival forces from close proximity), if not de-escalation (ending hostilities through demobilisation of forces), meshes well with China’s interest in presenting India a fait accompli. Removing the threat of an Indian counteroffensive or Indian tit-for-tat land grab will help China win without fighting.
This explains why China has accepted disengagement — but on its terms. This is illustrated in the Galwan Valley, where India has pulled back from its own territory and created a “buffer zone” on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These steps, though temporary, create a new, China-advantageous status quo that PLA could seek to enforce because it keeps India out of China’s newly-claimed zone — the Galwan Valley.
The risk that, like at Doklam, the current disengagement may not end well for India is high. Instead of demonstrating strength and resolve, India has displayed zeal to end the stand-off, despite its armed forces being mobilised for possible war.
At a time when the international environment is beginning to turn against China, India could have prolonged the stand-off until winter to compel restoration of status quo ante. But instead, it has kicked status quo ante down the road and settled merely for disengagement. This allows China to hold on to its core territorial gains and trade the marginal occupied territories for Indian concessions, as part of its well-known “advance 10 miles and retreat six miles” strategy.
Far from imposing military costs, India has shied away even from trade actions against the aggressor, as if to preserve the option of another Modi-Xi summit. India’s steps so far (banning Chinese mobile apps and announcing an intent to restrict Chinese investment in some areas) have been designed to assuage public anger at home, but without imposing substantive costs on Beijing or damaging bilateral relations.
In 1967, a weak India, while recovering from the 1962 and 1965 wars, gave China a bloody nose. But in 2017 and again now, after its soldiers displayed extraordinary bravery in tackling China’s aggression, a nuclear-armed India hastily sought disengagement. Its decision-makers remain loath to fundamentally change the China policy even when faced with aggression.
Bite by bite, China has been nibbling away at India’s borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have sought to appease it. When political calculations trump military factors and a nation lives by empty rhetoric, it can win neither war nor peace.
The present path risks locking India in a “no war, no peace” situation with China and imposing mounting security costs. This path aids China’s time-tested strategy of attrition, friction and containment to harass, encumber, encircle, deceive and weigh India down.
If India wants Himalayan peace, it must make China pay for its aggression to help create a deterrent effect. The present aggression — the most serious since the 1960s — resulted from India letting China off the hook too easily in 2017, allowing it to capture Doklam. And if China emerges the winner from the current crisis, its next aggression could be worse. Only a chastened China saddled with high costs and loss of face will rein in its aggressive expansionism.
While the international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it continues to incrementally expand its strategic footprint, Beijing is also quietly focusing its attention on the waters of rivers that originate in the resource-rich, Chinese-controlled territory of Tibet.
China has long pursued a broader strategy to corner natural resources. This has driven its expanding presence in faraway places, including Africa and Latin America. China’s newer obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future.
Peace and security in Asia both hinge on China’s willingness to embrace rules-based cooperation, which includes ceasing activities that threaten to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a Chinese political weapon. These activities range from building cascades of large dams on international rivers before they leave Chinese-controlled territory to the denial of or delayed transfer of hydrological data to downstream neighboring countries.
Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau. From there, they flow to a dozen countries, including mainland China. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan Plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the Northern Hemisphere.
Today, China has turned this ecologically -fragile plateau, which it invaded and occupied from 1950 to 1951, into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming more than three times faster than the global average according to Chinese data, glacial recession, especially in the eastern Himalayas, and the thawing of Tibet’s permafrost (or permanently frozen ground) have accelerated.
More consequential for downstream countries is the fact that China, by building giant dams and other diversion structures on international rivers that start in Tibet, is becoming Asia’s upstream water controller. This action is arming Beijing with increasing leverage over the countries critically dependent on river flows from the Tibetan Plateau.
Take the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline. A new study in the United States confirms what many in the region know — that China is damming the Mekong to environmental hell. According to the study, China’s cascade of upstream mega-dams, by limiting downstream flows, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by limiting downstream flows. Using a natural-flow data model, the study found that the 11 eleven Chinese mega-dams currently in operation on the Mekong are causing severe drought and devastation downstream. Yet an undeterred China is building more giant dams on the Mekong just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. This study by the Eyes on Earth research and consulting company was conducted with funding from the State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative.
It is not just the Mekong: China is constructing dams on multiple international rivers just before they leave its territory. China’s efforts to reengineer cross-border natural flows are roiling its relations with downstream neighbors. Its occupation of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic realities. It made China the neighbor of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Furthermore, China gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.
Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — is also a treasure-trove of mineral resources, holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 ten different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer. Today, Tibet is the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the plateau’s fragile ecosystems and endemic species. Tibet also remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions, and feuds over river-water flows. Among the rivers China’s dam builders are targeting is the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India. A series of dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.
Beijing’s unilateralist actions extend beyond dam building. In 2017, China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements, underscoring its readiness to weaponize the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was said to be intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for a military standoff between the two countries that year on the small, but strategically important, Himalayan plateau of Doklam. The withholding of data crimped India’s flood early-warning systems. That, in turn, resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.
The Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, represents another example of China’s unilateralist actions on internationally shared waters. In 2017, the Siang’s water turned dirty and gray as the stream entered India from Tibet. This raised concern that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the Siang in the same way Beijing has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Nearly three years later, the water in the once-pristine Siang has still not fully cleared.
According to Aquastat, a database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan Plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33 percent% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. This might suggest that no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers. In reality, as China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong illustrates, its small, economically vulnerable neighbors are the most susceptible to its upstream hydroengineering activities. The greatest impact of the Brahmaputra’s damming, for example, will be borne not by India but by Bangladesh, which is located furthest downstream.
For years, China has been the global leader in dam building. It already boasts slightly more than half of the globe’s approximately 58,000 large dams. Yet its “dam rush” persists. The more dams it builds on international rivers, the greater becomes its capacity to use transboundary waters as a tool of coercive diplomacy against its neighbors. Every new dam, by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows, increases the potential use of shared waters as a political weapon by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows. This concern is underscored by China’s refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighboring country. Even India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.
China’s present path will likely lead to greater environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, exacerbating Asia’s water challenges. Asia is the world’s largest and most-populous continent, with three-fifths of the global population, yet it has the lowest per capita freshwater availability — less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters.
At a time of increasing water stress in Asia, the growth of water nationalism as a driver of China’s policy highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace.
If China does not abandon its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with co-basin states, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever, while the likelihood of downstream countries facing a drier future would increase. Asia will be able to shape water for peace only if China comes on board by embracing transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological-data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.
. . .
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
FIGHTING TWO BATTLES simultaneously — one against Chinese aggression in Ladakh and another against the China-originating coronavirus — India finds itself at a critical juncture in its post-Independence history. How India emerges from the dual crises will not only decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political future but, more importantly, have an important bearing on the country’s future trajectory and international standing.
The bare fact is that China’s stealth aggression in the second half of April caught India napping, with the armed forces discovering the intrusions in early May. In a swift operation that must have been planned months ahead, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly changed the status quo by encroaching into disputed and undisputed border areas of Ladakh. This came at a time when a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown.
Since the 1980s, China has been eating away — bite by bite — at India’s Himalayan borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have pursued a policy of appeasement toward Beijing. India is now reaping the bitter fruits of such appeasement.
In comparison to China’s intrusions in the past years, its latest aggression is unprecedented. The well-coordinated encroachments were strategically geared to creating new facts on the ground by grabbing vantage locations, with the intent to secure militarily commanding positions and render Indian defences vulnerable. This was underscored by the PLA’s occupation of the key strategic heights around Lake Pangong, in the area stretching from Fingers 4 to 8, and by its encampments atop Galwan Valley’s ridges that overlook India’s newly built Darbuk-Shyok-DBO highway. That highway is a key supply route to India’s most-forward military base located near the Karakoram Pass.
Although China provoked bloody clashes at the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967 and triggered border skirmishes in 1986-87 by crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Samdurong Chu, this year has marked the first time that it has opened military pressure points against India in peacetime all along the Himalayan frontier. To mount pressure on India, China not only has amassed forces along the Himalayan frontier but also provoked a series of clashes with Indian troops, even along Sikkim’s 206-kilometer border with Tibet.
China sees conflict as inevitable
Although China has risen from a backward, poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed. Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” This has meant exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defence. “All warfare,” Sun Tzu also famously said, “is based on deception.”
Communist China has repeatedly used force since 1950. This happened even under Deng Xiaoping, who sought to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam in 1979, in the style of Mao’s 1962 war on India. Whenever China has used force, it has been in the form of military pre-emption, executed through deception, concealment and surprise. Its latest aggression against India had all these elements.
The Chinese system sees conflict as inherent in China’s efforts to resolutely achieve its rightful place in the world and to assert its territorial claims and broader strategic interests. Beijing is thus ever willing to create or manage conflict. From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on countries that challenge it to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a muscular, conflict-making role. As a Global Timeseditorial on June 22 said in relation to India, “The border dispute has made it clear that China is not afraid of conflicts when it comes to territorial issues.”
Against this background, a China-India agreement to de-escalate tensions will offer Beijing an opportunity to escalate its game of deception, with the aim of buying time and consolidating its hold on the newly encroached areas. China usually takes one step at a time in its relentless push to expand its land and sea frontiers. In the coming years, it could seek to replicate its Pangong territorial grab in other strategic Ladakh areas, such as Depsang, Demchok and Chumar.
In fact,India’s perennially reactive mode has long allowed the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. The PLA began honing its “salami tactics” in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau from Ladakh. Later China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms.
Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple security layers. China has been gradually subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, its border with India, and even the flows of international rivers — all without firing a single shot.
Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pursued increasingly persistent efforts to intrude into India’s desolate borderlands. Yet India has silently faced China’s bulletless war for territory without a concrete counter-strategy to impose costs for such revisionism. As China’s coercive power grows, it is likely to increasingly employ its capabilities not to wage full-scale military conflict with another country but to alter the territorial status quo in its favour short of overt war and to narrow the other side’s options.
China’s stealth wars have already become a leading cause of geopolitical instability in Asia. India is a principal target of such stealth wars. China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims and constantly expanding its claim lines in the Himalayas. Given that the two countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China. Indeed, the largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, is almost three times as large as Taiwan.
The Himalayan frontier is vast, inhospitable and difficult to patrol, giving an advantage to a determined aggressor. Kiren Rijiju, India’s then Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament in 2014 that, on average, China was launching at least one stealth border transgression into Indian territory every day. According to Rijiju, PLA troops were intruding into vacant border spaces with the objective of occupying them.
China’s high-altitude territorial incursions gained momentum after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 surrendered India’s Tibet card by formally recognizing Tibet as part of China. Beijing exploited Vajpayee’s yearning for a successful China visit by extracting concessions that presented India as seemingly willing to accept a Sino-centric Asia. For the first time, India used the legal term “recognize” — in a joint document signed by the heads of the two countries — to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
Vajpayee’s gratuitous concession on Tibet — a large historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations that the Chinese communists annexed in 1950-51 — acted as a spur to China’s creeping aggression. It was in the period after India’s Tibet cave-in that the Chinese coined the term “South Tibet” for the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh. The cave-in also set in motion stepped-up Chinese incursions and other border transgressions, with such scofflaw actions steadily increasing in the period from 2005 to 2020, as India’s own figures underscore.
In the Himalayas, like in the South China Sea, China has in some instances employed civilian resources as the tip of its intrusion strategy. While China’s naval forces in the South China Sea have followed Chinese fishermen to carve out space for occupying reefs, in the Himalayan region, the PLA has used specially recruited Han Chinese herders and grazers to encroach on some Indian frontier areas. Once such civilians settle on the infiltrated land, PLA troops gain control of the area, thus paving the way for the establishment of more permanent encampments or observation posts. To be sure, PLA troops have also directly infiltrated and occupied unguarded areas.
Thanks to such PLA tactics, India has over the years lost considerable land in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In Ladakh, for example, PLA’s nibbling at Indian territories has resulted in its capture of Chumar’s Tia Pangnak and Chabji Valley and an ancient trading centre, Doom Cheley. China has been able to advance its territorial aggrandizement along the Himalayan frontier (and in the South China Sea) without the need for missiles or bullets.
Yet, without realizing it, successive Indian prime ministers have aided or condoned China’s terrestrial aggression. In fact, their naïve statements have encouraged greater Chinese incursions. Take Modi, who prioritized resetting ties with China after becoming prime minister in 2014 without any prior national experience.
In 2017, Modi said that, although China and India are at odds over their borders, it was remarkable that “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Modi’s “positive remarks.” Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for his part, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbours only after China completed its capture of Tibet in 1951.
India’s accommodating rhetoric has helped China’s designs to such an extent that the phrase Modi coined, “inch toward miles,” as the motto of India-China cooperation actually reflects the PLA strategy of incremental encroachments. While India-China cooperation has yet to inch toward miles, the PLA has been busy translating Modi’s slogan into practice.
Slippery slope of appeasement
When China caught India’s undermanned and ill-equipped army napping by launching a surprise, multi-pronged military attack across the Himalayas on October 20, 1962, the humiliation that ensued marked a tectonic moment in India’s post-independence history. Taking an enemy by surprise confers a significant tactical advantage in war, and the Chinese invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that greatly magnified the initial military advances that China achieved.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.” China’s blitzkrieg created gloom and a defeatist mindset in India, and forced its army to retreat to defensive positions. India even shied away from employing its air power for fear of unknown consequences, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover for its advancing forces. India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.” It was Nehru’s persistent appeasement toward China that set in motion the events leading to the 1962 Chinese invasion.
India’s defeat led to profound developments. It hastened the death of Nehru and set in motion fundamental changes in the country’s policy and approach, including the launch of military modernization. Yet, by the late 1980s, appeasement returned as the leitmotif of India’s China policy. Today, nearly 58 years after 1962, Indian appeasement toward China has again resulted in developments inimical to India’s security. War clouds have suddenly appeared. India has largely forgotten the lessons of 1962, including the costs of reposing faith in China’s words.
Appeasement is a slippery, treacherous slope. Once a nation embarks on appeasement, it slips into a self-perpetuating trap. Every prime minister after Indira Gandhi has kowtowed to China. Indian appeasement resumed with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Beijing visit and deepened with Vajpayee’s 2003 surrender of India’s Tibet card. Modi, for his part, has taken appeasement to a new level.
The paradox is that, in the post-Indira Gandhi period, every time India has stood up to China, it has been followed by New Delhi’s kowtow to Beijing. The Sumdorong Chu confrontation was followed by Rajiv Gandhi’s paying of obeisance to Beijing. In 2017, Indian forces resolutely halted PLA’s effort to build a road to the Indian border through the uninhabited Doklam plateau that India’s ally, Bhutan, regards as its own territory. This action was followed by Modi’s kowtow to China.
It was Modi, as Chinese President Xi Jinping later revealed, that proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit — a proposal that led to the so-called Wuhan process. Xi gladly accepted Modi’s proposal of early 2018 because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India.
Worse still, Modi initiated this process despite China’s seizure of Doklam. After the 73-day troop standoff at the southwestern edge of Doklam ended with an agreement to disengage, China launched frenzied construction of military fortifications and seized control of almost the entire plateau, other than the corner where the faceoff had occurred. By the time Modi decided to travel to Wuhan, the Doklam plateau, which previously had no permanent military structures or permanent force deployments, was teeming with Chinese barracks, helipads, ammunition dumps and other facilities, as satellite images underscored.
The myth of Doklam victory that Modi sold Indians to bolster his image proved costly for India, as China’s 2020 aggression has highlighted. Despite being Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor, India failed to defend that tiny nation’s territorial sovereignty. China’s Doklam capture has shattered Bhutanese faith in India’s security assurances, making Thimphu more eager to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Meanwhile, with his leverage weakened, Modi’s effort at rapprochement with Beijing quickly slid into overt appeasement. In early 2018, his government halted any official contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. This compounded Vajpayee’s Tibet cave-in. Officials were directed to stay away even from the March 2018 events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
The following month, the Wuhan summit produced little more than Indian government-sponsored media hype. In fact, no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the key understandings reached at Wuhan. For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against the increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached at Wuhan to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that crucial phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.
Such differences were no surprise. Like all previous India-China summits since 1988, the Wuhan summit was long on political theatre, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the bilateral dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”
Wuhan was followed in October 2019 by an equally unremarkable Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram, near Chennai. Yet Modi hailed both summits as harbingers of a new strategic convergence with China. If anything, his “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” lullabies — like Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai lullaby — lulled India into a dangerous complacency.
Against this background, is it any surprise that military tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry? There is still no clearly defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. Such a situation has persisted despite regular Chinese-Indian talks since 1981. In fact, these talks constitute the longest and most futile negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history.
China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003. With new each label, India has sought to wipe the slate clean, underscoring its unwillingness to learn from its unpalatable past experiences. For example, India today cites 22 rounds of talks thus far between the special representatives, but without mentioning the earlier border negotiations, as if they didn’t happen.
More significantly, China has made it clear that it has little interest in resolving the boundary question. An unsettled border aids China’s “salami slicing” strategy and also helps it to exert direct military pressure on India whenever it wants. During a 2010 visit to New Delhi, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated bluntly that sorting out the border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” In fact, after Vajpayee’s 2003 Tibet cave-in, China stopped talking about clarification of the LAC.
Since 2008, thanks to Beijing, references to clarification of the LAC finds no mention in official bilateral documents. Yet successive Indian governments have played into China’s hands by carrying on with the useless negotiations.
The same is the story with India’s investment of considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China over the past 27 years. Five border-management agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Each was signed with great fanfare at a summit, and each was hailed in India (but not in China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.” This shows how successive Indian prime ministers have got a free pass from the country’s pliant media and feckless analysts, thus exacerbating India’s China challenge.
The last accord, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), was a textbook example of appeasing an aggressor and whetting the belligerent’s appetite for swallowing territory. Beijing wanted a new accord to wipe the slate clean over its breaches of the border-peace agreements signed earlier. With the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yearning to showcase the “success” of the summit, India acceded to the habitual violator’s call for new border rules. And Singh, with the help of the planeload of journalists he usually took on any overseas visit, marketed his China trip as a major success.
BDCA’s provisions were vaguely worded, allowing China — a master at reinterpreting texts — to cast the burden of compliance mainly on India. In fact, whereas China has flouted the letter and spirit of every bilateral accord, India has been strictly adhering to the various agreements’ provisions to such an extent that it has even gone beyond their literal meaning, resulting in the preventable deaths of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of the PLA on June 15.
The 1996 accord’s provision not to use firearms within two kilometres of the LAC (Article VI) relates to peacetime border-policing situations, including cases where rival border patrols run into each other. It does not relate to aggression by one side against the other. What India has faced since April in eastern Ladakh is China’s pre-emptive military strike. Had Article VI been correctly read earlier as applicable only to border policing, India would not have lost 20 soldiers. The 20 were brutally murdered by PLA troops armed with improvised weapons, before Indian soldiers avenged the killings by inflicting heavy PLA casualties.
Today, thanks to China’s brazen aggression, the vaunted border-management framework lies in tatters. The aggression has highlighted the worthlessness of the Indian investment in such agreements. Yet, after telling his Chinese counterpart that China’s aggression broke “all our agreements,” Indian External Affairs S. Jaishankar, in the same telephonic conversation, oddly reposed faith in those very “bilateral agreements and protocols” for de-escalation! This raises a fundamental question: Will India ever learn?
Since 1988, the more India has sought to appease China, the greater has been the perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward it. This hardening is reflected in developments beyond the bilateral domain, including Chinese strategic projects in other countries that neighbour India and the PLA’s troop presence in the Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). With its troops present near the Pakistan-occupied J&K’s frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh.
More fundamentally, the strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and its biggest democracy has also sharpened, despite their fast-rising trade. Trade is the only area in which bilateral relations have thrived, with China managing to more than double its trade surplus with India on Modi’s watch to over $60 billion per year. China’s booming trade surplus, however, has failed to moderate or restrain its behaviour.
Modi’s alternate reality
Since the time Modi served as Gujarat’s chief minister, he has tended to view China not as it is but as he would like it to be. After he became prime minister, he went out of his way to befriend China. He postponed a Japan visit by several weeks so that his first meeting with an important world leader was with Xi. By delisting China as a “country of concern,” Modi further opened up the Indian economy to Beijing but ended up facilitating greater Chinese dumping.
Even by his penchant for springing surprises, Modi’s recent televised speech at the end of the June 19 all-party meeting was a stunner. As if underline a surreal alternate reality, Modi declared: “Nobody has intruded into our territory, nor is any intruder present, and nor is any post of ours under someone else’s occupation.” His speech became an instant propaganda coup for China, with its state media saying his words signalled to Beijing that Modi doesn’t want “further conflict with China” because, as the Global Times warned, “India will be more humiliated than” in 1962.
Modi effectively scored a self-goal damaging to India’s diplomatic and strategic interests. If India is unwilling to call China out on its aggression and intrusions, how does it expect any other major power to come to its support by criticizing China’s aggression? More importantly, by obscuring the truth on China’s encroachments, India is playing right into Beijing’s hands. China, the master of propaganda, will use Modi’s own words to tell the world that there was no aggression from its side, while continuing to consolidate its new territorial gains in Ladakh.
The supposed “clarification” issued by Modi’s office on his speech raised more questions than it answered, worsening the confusion. Without denying Modi’s key words, it said: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India.” The official Indian map extends to areas where PLA forces are currently arrayed against India. The Chinese cannot be faulted if they interpret Modi’s words as signalling that India, in reality, no longer considers the Chinese-occupied areas, including Aksai Chin, as its own.
Modi’s speech, in fact, illustrated how India relives history. Nehru kept obscuring China’s encroachments in the 1950s until he was caught in a trap that led to the 1962 humiliation. Now, despite the availability of satellite imagery in the digital era, Modi has likewise sought to cloak Chinese intrusions. Instead of drawing lessons from the Nehru era, including from how China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin, Modi delivered a speech that implicitly absolved China of its intrusions. His words can only embolden the aggressor.
Modi has cast himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from encroachers and terrorists. The fact that India was caught off-guard by the Chinese aggression is embarrassing for him. Modi wants to protect his image as a strong leader. This, unfortunately, has led him to downplay China’s aggression from the time the Indian Army discovered it. Until the PLA’s savage killing of 20 Indian soldiers lifted the lid on the Chinese aggression, Indian authorities sought to minimize the significance of China’s actions and to hide details. How can saving face at home become a bigger priority for the country’s leader than safeguarding long-term national interests?
Had Modi rallied the nation behind him as soon as the Chinese encroachments were discovered and had he ordered the armed forces to take counteraction, the PLA would not have gained time to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas. In the Lake Pangong region, for example, the PLA has transformed the landscape by building dozens of observation posts, bunkers and other concrete fortifications since the first clashes flared between rival troops there on May 5-6.
India has lost valuable time by doing nothing. It has been hoping against hope that China would see reason and withdraw.
Unfortunately, the Indian government even obscured the nature and significance of the clashes that occurred in the first 10 days of May, including near the Naku-la Pass, on the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. It also hid the extent of Indian casualties. In fact, the clashes were sought to be passed off as minor until revelations emerged weeks later that both sides had briefly captured each other’s soldiers and that some troops had been so seriously wounded that they required airlifting to hospitals, including in New Delhi.
Worse still, the Indian Army chief, General Manoj Naravane, personally downplayed China’s aggression. He issued a bizarre statement on May 14 that gratuitously blamed “aggressive behaviour by both sides” for the clashes, which he euphemistically called “incidents.” An Army chief blaming his own troops for “aggressive behaviour” while they confront an invading foe is unheard of.
General Naravane’s statement — apparently issued at the government’s behest — actually went to great lengths to cover up China’s aggression, including the ensuing clashes that erupted at several border points. The statement blamed the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” on “differing perceptions” of the LAC’s alignment. In effect, he offered China a justification for its encroachments.
To be sure, the “differing perceptions” argument has long been proffered by successive Indian governments to obscure loss of territory or to rationalize Chinese incursions. This argument has given China, with its ever-shifting claim lines in the Himalayas, carte blanche to keep encroaching on more and more Indian areas by quoting India’s own admission that the LAC is indistinct and hazy.
General Naravane not only expounded the “differing perceptions” theory while the country was faced with its most serious China-frontier crisis in decades, but also his statement claimed that the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” were “neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities.” Why should the Indian Army chief take it upon himself to explain Chinese actions so as to paint them in better light? The fact is that the Ladakh and Sikkim border developments were indeed co-related, and were part of Xi’s larger aggressive quest for Chinese dominance.
On June 13th, a month after his first statement, General Naravane made another statement that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control,” even as the intruding PLA troops were consolidating their hold on the areas they had infiltrated. Just two days later, the façade of “all is well” on the Himalayan borders collapsed, after the PLA’s ambush-killings triggered bloody clashes. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers, with scores more hospitalized, shocked the nation and brought the government’s handling of the situation under public scrutiny.
China’s stealth intrusions into eastern Ladakh have been followed with frenzied construction activity to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas and fortify its defences. Amid a Chinese military buildup along the Himalayas, Xi appointed a favourite general in early June to lead PLA forces arrayed against India. Xu Qiling, a rising PLA star and ground force commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, swapped positions with He Weidong, the ground force commander of the Western Theatre Command. Xu has the experience to lead joint ground and air operations. As if to signal that it could be readying to wage war on India, China evacuated its citizens from India in special flights from late May.
Many analysts in India and abroad have cited the Sino-Indian power asymmetry to argue that India cannot take on China. After all, China’s economic and military power is much greater than India’s. Some analysts have argued that Modi’s “no intrusion” statement reflected this reality.
War is not decided by military and economic capabilities alone. If capabilities alone determined the outcome of wars, then the stronger side would always win. But history is replete with examples of the weaker side triumphing over the more powerful opponent.
What is critical to any war’s outcome is leadership, political will, resoluteness, strategy, tactics and troop morale. History is shaped by farsighted and visionary leaders, who can change the destiny of a nation. Great leaders in history turned small island nations into global powers, while short-sighted leaders unravelled empires.
Defence generally has the advantage over offense, because it is easier to protect and hold than to advance, destroy and seize. Defensive operations in the mountains or on high-altitude plateaus, as in Ladakh, are aimed at resisting and foiling an enemy strike in order to prepare ground for a counter-attack.
India has one of the world’s largest and most-experienced mountain warfare armies. The fearlessness and bravery of its soldiers was highlighted recently by the swift costs they imposed on PLA troops in the Galwan Valley after an Indian patrol was ambushed. They demonstrated the true mark of valour when, in the face of death, they inflicted heavy Chinese casualties in hand-to-hand combat, including killing the PLA unit’s commanding officer. Intercepts of Chinese communications by US intelligence have confirmed that China lost more than twice as many soldiers as India.
The deaths represent China’s first combat troops killed in action, other than in UN peacekeeping operations, since the end of its war with Vietnam in 1979. The combat fatalities are a humiliation for China, which explains why it has hidden information on its casualties. Some on Chinese social media have criticized Xi’s regime by contrasting India’s honouring of its martyrs, including holding large public funerals, with China’s refusal to even recognize its fallen.
The Indian Army today is capable of repulsing a PLA attack and inflicting heavy losses. But there is a bigger question: Does India have the political will to impose costs on China? Despite Modi’s strongman image, India remains essentially a soft state, as his own China speech highlighted.
Shrewdly timing a pre-emptive strike that takes the opponent completely by surprise has been central to Communist China’s repeated use of force. By contrast, India — with its defensive mindset and risk-averseness under successive prime ministers — cannot even think of undertaking a pre-emptive assault. This gives China a major tactical advantage over India. As the Global Times said on June 21, China knows that India will not fire the first shot.
It will be China’s initiative to start a war against India and to end it — just like in 1962. And to achieve its objectives, China will do anything, from breaking binding agreements to employing a range of elaborate deceptions.
India needs to make a fresh start by abandoning its accommodating approach toward China that has made it look like a meek enabler. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must discard the platitudes and retake the narrative. To blunt Xi’s expansionism and to halt further Chinese encroachments, India must bare its own teeth and implement a containment strategy, including by joining hands with likeminded powers.
India must remember that when it has stood up to China, as in 1967, the bully has backed off, thus ensuring peace along the Himalayan frontier. But when India has sought to placate or appease China, the emboldened bully has stepped up its incursions and territorial aggrandizement.
In 1967, while still recovering from the major wars of 1962 and 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in the military clashes along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Those clashes were triggered by a Chinese attack much less grave than the Chinese aggression India now confronts. In 2020, can India pretend to be weaker than it was in 1967, despite building a nuclear arsenal and despite its longstanding status as one of the world’s largest importers of weapons?
President Xi Jinping, seeking to press China’s advantage while its neighbors are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, has lately opened multiple fronts in his campaign to make China the world’s foremost power — from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China Seas to the Himalayan frontier.
The globally paralyzing pandemic has reinforced Xi’s efforts to realize his “Chinese dream” by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. Xi said in a speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University in April that “great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”
This may explain why China has sought to make the most of the pandemic. From breaking Beijing’s binding commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and attempting to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to picking a nasty border fight with India by encroaching on its territory, Xi has pushed the boundaries.
His actions are helping to shift attention from China’s culpability in the global spread of COVID-19 to the threat his authoritarian regime poses to international security. But his expansive vision has also increased the risks of China succumbing to what the historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” or overextending itself abroad, leading to its decline and fall, like how the Soviet empire imploded.
Xi’s expansionism has sought to remake globalization on China’s terms. The overreach is best illustrated by his marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to refashion the global economic and political order by plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when China has still to fully overcome poverty and underdevelopment at home.
It is an imperial project seeking to lure nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. But instead of the “common prosperity” Xi promised, the BRI has been ensnaring vulnerable countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The pandemic’s mounting economic toll makes it harder for partner countries to repay their loans.
Beijing’s refusal to grant debt relief to partner states facing bankruptcy is only highlighting its predatory lending practices. By engendering anger or resentment, the hard-line approach risks undermining China’s international image and inviting a pushback against its neocolonial policies.
More ominously, Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance has led him to open multiple political or military fronts at the same time. This has raised concern at home about China overextending itself and international alarm over the country’s trajectory. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the world is seeing “continually more aggressive action” by China.
Under Xi, China’s relationship with the superpower that aided its economic rise, the U.S., has given way to hostility, with a cold war on the horizon. With India, Xi seems itching to start the world’s next big conflict. The link between China and India, which make up more than a third of humanity and over a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.
Meanwhile, Xi’s regime has stepped up efforts to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a political weapon by building cascades of large dams in China’s borderlands. China’s frenzied upstream damming of the Mekong River, however, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While Mao Zedong destroyed the old order and Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern Chinese economy, Xi is determined to make China the central player in international relations. Xi’s ambition, coupled with the cult of personality around him, may be blinding him to the dangers of an approach that has stretched China’s resources when its economy is slowing and working-age population declining.
Today, China remains a friendless power lacking any true seafaring strategic allies or reliable security partners. Indeed, the more powerful China has become, the more difficult it has become for it to gain genuine allies.
Can Xi make China, without any allies, the world’s leading power by relying on an open disregard of international rules and on bullying? Leadership demands more than brute might.
The assumption behind Xi’s muscular approach — that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay — had thus far proved right, with other powers issuing words but shying away from actions. But with the pandemic and the move to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy, Tibet-style, Xi is courting an international backlash, underlined by a spate of actions from the U.S., EU, U.K., India and Australia.
Like the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy — a prelude to the Soviet Union’s fall — the pandemic has shown how a communist regime worsens a disaster by seeking to cover up the truth about it. The pandemic, by highlighting the global costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism, has made it more likely that the backlash will act as a spoiler to Xi’s neo-imperial ambitions.
Countries are already reassessing their economic reliance on Beijing and seeking supply chain diversification away from China. One example is Japan’s $2.2 billion fund to help reshore manufacturing. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has opened the path to American sanctions against Chinese officials and companies.
With other powers still wrestling with the pandemic and a protest-scarred U.S. looking weak, Xi may take more aggressive actions to flex China’s muscle. But unless he reverses course, his overreach is likely to saddle China with overwhelming costs while creating an international environment hostile to the realization of his dream.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
India extended the hand of friendship to China but was repaid with stealth aggression in Ladakh. The Chinese incursions into strategic areas presented India with a Kargil-like challenge. The aggression is not just a wake-up call for India; it could prove to be the deciding factor in fundamentally altering the country’s approach to China.
Shrewdly timing a surprise assault has been central to China’s repeated use of force, as several studies underscore. In 1962, China invaded India just as the Cuban missile crisis was bringing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And in April-May, as a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China encroached on Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Hot Springs (both previously undisputed areas) and simultaneously occupied Lake Pangong’s disputed long stretch between Fingers 4 and 8.
Military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” led China to strike when India was vulnerable. India’s draconian lockdown — the world’s strictest — flattened not its coronavirus curve but its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) curve, as one industrialist has noted. India now has the worst of both worlds — spiralling infection rates and a seriously-damaged economy, crimping its military options. China, which signalled a bellicose intent by conducting Himalayan military drills since the beginning of this year, seized the opening from the Indian Army’s lockdown-driven deferment of its annual Ladakh exercise, which creates acclimatised troop reserves before late spring unfreezes ingress routes.
Caught off-guard, India faces difficult options while battling the pandemic. India, however, is unlikely to put up with China’s encroachments, which explains its counterforce build-up in eastern Ladakh, despite the viral risks to troops. This week’s mutual pullback of troops at three of the four confrontation sites reduces the threat of war but doesn’t diminish China’s act of belligerence. The 2017 Doklam disengagement is a reminder that China doesn’t deviate from what it has set out to achieve: No sooner had the standoff ended than China began frenzied construction of permanent military structures and occupied almost the entire Doklam.
Let’s be clear. China’s latest aggression is very different from its Ladakh intrusions in the Depsang Plains (2013) and Chumar (2014) that had narrow tactical objectives. For example, it withdrew from Chumar after making India demolish local defensive fortifications.
The latest well-planned encroachments seem strategically geared to altering the frontier by grabbing vantage locations, whose control will place the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a commanding position. By building bunkers and other concrete structures, such as between Pangong’s Fingers 4 and 8, PLA has signalled its intent to retain key land grabs.
With PLA forces already present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near its frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh. The encroachments raise the spectre of PLA in a war cutting through northern Ladakh and physically linking up with Pakistan to put India under siege.
China’s aggression potentially signifies a geostrategic sea change. China is seeking to buy enough time through negotiations with India to consolidate its hold on key encroached areas. In this light, Beijing is seeking to string India along. If China vacates occupied land after extracting a price, it won’t be vantage points overlooking enemy positions but marginal territory.
As Mao Zedong admitted, China undertakes negotiations to “buttress its position” and “wear down the opponent”. China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before deceptively being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003.
India also invested considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China through five different agreements, each signed with great fanfare at summits between 1993 and 2013. However, by brazenly flouting the accords’ basic principles through its encroachments, China has gravely fractured the framework.
In the way it has profoundly changed the status quo in the South China Sea without firing a shot, China is seeking to complete its thus far bullet-less aggression against India by forestalling through negotiations an Indian counter-offensive or an Indian tit-for-tat grab of Chinese-claimed territory elsewhere. So, it is saying the two sides must ensure “differences do not escalate into disputes”. In plain language, China is asking India to stomach its aggression or else the situation will cease to be, in its words, “stable and controllable”.
With its aggression, however, China has brought its relations with India to a tipping point. By opening several international fronts, including one against India, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be biting off more than he can chew. He will discover India is no pushover. By awakening India to China’s threat, Xi’s aggression eventually will prove costly for China, which is already staring at a cold war with the United States.
Far from submitting to China’s aggression, India will make necessary readjustments in its foreign and defence policies with the aim of imposing costs and thwarting Beijing’s larger hegemonic objectives. After all, how India emerges from its military stand-off with China will have an important bearing on its international standing and on Asian security.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” By starting a conflict with India to advance his larger neo-imperial ambitions, Xi has increased the odds that the tiger under his arm will bite him.
Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The aggression – and the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t see it coming – shows just how miserably his China policy has failed.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “not in a good mood,” US President Donald Trump recently declared, as he offered to mediate India’s resurgent border conflict with China. After years of bending over backward to appease China, Modi has received yet another Chinese encroachment on Indian territory. Will this be enough to persuade him to change his approach?
While India was preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis, China was apparently planning its next attempt to change the region’s territorial status quo by force. Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The PLA has now established heavily fortified camps in the areas it infiltrated, in addition to deploying weapons on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), within striking distance of Indian deployments.
China’s “unexpected” maneuver should not have been unexpected at all. Last August, China’s government vigorously condemned India’s establishment of Ladakh – including the Chinese-held Aksai Chin Plateau – as a new federal territory. (China seized Aksai Chin in the 1950s, after gobbling up Tibet, which had previously served as a buffer with India.) And the PLA had been conducting regular combat exercises near the Indian border this year.
Deception, concealment, and surprise often accompany China’s use of force, with Chinese leaders repeatedly claiming that military preemption was a defensive measure. Its latest assault on India – which China claims is the actual aggressor – was taken straight from this playbook.
Yet Modi did not see the Chinese incursions coming. His vision seems to have been clouded by the naive hope that, by appeasing China, he could reset the bilateral relationship and weaken China’s ties with Pakistan, another revisionist state that lays claims to sizable swaths of Indian territory.
The China-Pakistan axis has long generated high security costs for India and raised the specter of a two-front war. That is why some Indian leaders have pursued a “defensive wedge strategy,” in which the status quo power seeks to drive a wedge between two allied revisionist states, so that it can focus its capabilities on the more threatening challenger.
In 1999, the first prime minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sought to win over Pakistan by visiting the country on the inaugural trip of a new bus service from Delhi to Lahore. Vajpayee was rewarded for his “bus diplomacy” with a stealth invasion by Pakistan’s powerful military of the Indian border zone of Kargil. This triggered a localized war, in which both sides lost several hundred soldiers before the status quo ante was restored.
Unlike Vajpayee, Modi has focused his attention on China – with similarly disastrous results. In fact, soon after becoming prime minister in 2014 – and just hours before hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit meeting – he learned that PLA troops had elbowed their way into southern Ladakh’s Chumar area, which lies along the LAC, and built a temporary road there.
The summit was portrayed as a success, even though the Chinese did not withdraw until weeks later, after India agreed to demolish local defensive fortifications. This was the beginning of a policy not of reconciliation, but of appeasement, the costs of which continue to mount.
On a trip to Beijing the next year, Modi surprised his own administration by announcing a decision to issue electronic tourist visas to Chinese nationals upon their arrival in India. He also delisted China as a “country of concern,” in an effort to court Chinese investment. Instead, the move opened India up to even more dumping by Chinese firms. On Modi’s watch, China has more than doubled its trade surplus with India to $60 billion per year – nearly equal to India’s annual defense spending.
Meanwhile, the PLA has continued to encroach on disputed territories. In mid-2017, Indian troops were pushed into another standoff with the PLA – this time, at Doklam, a small and desolate Himalayan plateau where Chinese-ruled Tibet meets the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Indian troops stood up to the Chinese, as the PLA attempted to build a road to the India border through the uninhabited plateau that Bhutan, an Indian ally, regards as its own territory. The standoff lasted 73 days, before China and India agreed to disengage.
India declared the Doklam disengagement a tactical victory. But over the next several months, China steadily expanded its troop deployments by building permanent military structures, thereby gaining control of much of Doklam. Despite being the de facto guarantor of Bhutan’s security, India failed to defend the tiny country’s territorial sovereignty.
Yet Modi maintained India’s appeasement policy. In 2018, his government backed away from official contact with the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile. At the same time, as Xi later revealed, Modi proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit – a proposal Xi gladly accepted, because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India. Two such summits have now been held, as well as 14 other meetings between the two leaders.
And what has Modi gotten for his troubles? China has stepped up its territorial revisionism, while raking in growing profits from the bilateral economic relationship (though, to be sure, India did recently tighten its policy on foreign direct investment, so that any flows from China must be pre-approved).
Modi has himself to blame for this state of affairs. With his excessive personalization of policy and stubborn strategic naiveté, he has shown himself not as the diplomatically deft strongman he purports to be, but as a kind of Indian Neville Chamberlain. Unless he learns from his mistakes and changes his policy toward China, India’s people – and territorial sovereignty – will pay the price.
The global backlash against China over its culpability for the international spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan has gained momentum in recent weeks. And China itself has added fuel to the fire, as exemplified by its recent legal crackdown on Hong Kong. From implicitly seeking a political quid pro quo for supplying other countries with protective medical gear, to rejecting calls for an independent international inquiry into the virus’s origins until a majority of countries backed such a probe, the bullying tactics of President Xi Jinping’s government have damaged and isolated China’s communist regime.
The backlash could take the form of Western sanctions as Xi’s regime seeks to overturn Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework with its proposed new national-security laws for the territory, which has been wracked by widespread pro-democracy protests for over a year. More broadly, Xi’s overreach is inviting increasing hostility among China’s neighbors and around the world.
Had Xi been wise, China would have sought to repair the pandemic-inflicted damage to its image by showing empathy and compassion, such as by granting debt relief to near-bankrupt Belt and Road Initiative partner countries and providing medical aid to poorer countries without seeking their support for its handling of the outbreak. Instead, China has acted in ways that undermine its long-term interests.
Whether through its aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy – named after two Chinese films in which special-operations forces rout US-led mercenaries – or military-backed expansionist moves in China’s neighborhood, Xi’s regime has caused international alarm. In fact, Xi, the self-styled indispensable leader, views the current global crisis as an opportunity to tighten his grip on power and advance his neo-imperialist agenda, recently telling a Chinese university audience that, “The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.”
China has certainly sought to make the most of the pandemic. After buying up much of the world’s available supply of protective medical equipment in January, it has engaged in price-gouging and apparent profiteering. And Chinese exports of substandard or defective medical gear have only added to the international anger.
While the world grapples with COVID-19, the Chinese military has provoked border flare-ups with India and attempted to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. China has also recently established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea, and stepped up its incursions and other activities in the area. In early April, for example, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, prompting the United States to caution China to “stop exploiting the [pandemic-related] distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
Meanwhile, China has made good on its threat of economic reprisals against Australia for initiating the idea of an international coronavirus inquiry. Through trade actions, the Chinese government has effectively cut off imports of Australian barley and blocked more than one-third of Australia’s regular beef exports to China.
Whereas Japan readily allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a full investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster – a probe that helped the country to improve safety governance – China strongly opposed any coronavirus inquiry, as if it had something to hide. In fact, some Chinese commentators denounced calls for an inquiry as racist.
But once a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19 gained the support of more than 100 countries in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, Xi sought to save face by telling the assembly that “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review.” At the last minute, China co-sponsored the resolution, which was approved without objection.
The resolution, however, leaves it up to the WHO’s controversial director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to launch the review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Tedros, who has been accused of aiding China’s initial COVID-19 cover-up, may decide to wait until the pandemic has come “under control,” as Xi has proposed.
Make no mistake: the world will not be the same after this wartime-like crisis. Future historians will regard the pandemic as a turning point that helped to reshape global politics and restructure vital production networks. Indeed, the crisis has made the world wake up to the potential threats stemming from China’s grip on many global supply chains, and moves are already afoot to loosen that control.
More fundamentally, Xi’s actions highlight how political institutions that bend to the whim of a single, omnipotent individual are prone to costly blunders. China’s diplomatic and information offensive to obscure facts and deflect criticism of its COVID-19 response may be only the latest example of its brazen use of censure and coercion to browbeat other countries. But it represents a watershed moment.
In the past, China’s reliance on persuasion secured its admission to international institutions like the World Trade Organization and helped to power its economic rise. But under Xi, spreading disinformation, exercising economic leverage, flexing military muscle, and running targeted influence operations have become China’s favorite tools for getting its way. Diplomacy serves as an adjunct of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.
Xi’s approach is alienating other countries, in the process jeopardizing their appetite for Chinese-made goods, scaring away investors, and accentuating China’s image problem. Negative views of China and its leadership among Americans have reached a record high. Major economies such as Japan and the US are offering firms relocation subsidies as an incentive to shift production out of China. And India’s new rule requiring prior government approval of any investment from China is the first of its kind.
China currently faces the most daunting international environment since it began opening up in the late 1970s, and now it risks suffering lasting damage to its image and interests. A boomerang effect from Xi’s overreach seems inevitable. A pandemic that originated in China will likely end up weakening the country’s global position and hamstringing its future growth. In this sense, the hollowing out of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the shadow of COVID-19 could prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the global geopolitical landscape, including triggering a growing backlash against China. The world wants to know why and how a local outbreak in Wuhan turned into a global pandemic that has already killed more than a quarter of a million people. The incalculable human and economic toll continues to mount.
An independent international inquiry will give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world. But the Chinese Communist Party vehemently opposes such a probe, viewing it as a mortal threat.
Against this background, the forthcoming session of the World Health Assembly (the decision-making body of the World Health Organization) is shaping up as a test of China’s ability to block an independent investigation into the origins and spread of the new coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan. The European Union is the latest to state that it will back a resolution at the assembly calling for an independent review.
Getting to the bottom of how the COVID-19 virus flared and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local outbreak from spiraling into another pandemic. After all, this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Even the WHO agrees on the need for an investigation, with its representative in China saying that knowing the origins of the COVID-19 virus is “very important” to prevent “reoccurrence.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with willful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.
For example, why did China stop domestic flights from Wuhan from Jan. 23, yet allowed some international flights to continue operating from there, such as charter flights? It aided the international spread of the virus by continuing to encourage foreign travel from other Chinese cities until late March. Also, by the time it belatedly locked down Wuhan, about 5 million of its residents, according to the mayor, had already left the city, with an unknown number flying overseas from other Chinese cities. Simply put, infected travelers from Wuhan seeded outbreaks in many countries.
Another key question is why China has clamped down on further research by Chinese scientists into the virus’s origins. It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
In fact, authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory for “rectification” a day after its Jan. 12 publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China, significantly, has still not shared any live virus sample with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Moreover, China has not given foreign experts access to any facility or location where the virus may have originated, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. China’s infamous “batwoman,” Shi Zhengli, was leading lab experiments there in manipulating natural coronaviruses from bats.
The dangerous research may explain why China, instead of sharing coronavirus samples with the outside world, chose to destroy its lab samples, according to Pompeo and the Beijing-based Caixin Global news site. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that it is investigating whether the pandemic was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” Pompeo says there is already “enormous evidence” indicating that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab.
In January, while China was playing down the contagion’s threat, it was quietly engaged in a frenzied import of medical gear — from personal protective equipment to masks. According to a U.S. Department of Homeland Security intelligence report dated May 1, China “intentionally concealed the severity” of the outbreak to facilitate its hoarding. By the time the virus seriously hit Europe, China had bought up much of the global supply of protective gear, including 56 million respirators and masks in the last week of January alone.
Now, China has stepped up a crackdown at home to keep what happened at Wuhan under wraps. According to one account, grieving relatives and their lawyers have been threatened by police and volunteers “who tried to thwart the state’s censorship apparatus by preserving reports about the outbreak have disappeared.”
Just think: If China was not guilty of any coverup, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to provide assistance to such a probe? Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for an inquiry. It insists the world must avoid “pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”
Australia, for example, has come under China’s withering attack for proposing that WHO member nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. The Chinese ambassador to Australia, calling Australia’s proposal “dangerous,” threatened punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef, tourism and education sectors.
Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven countries, India and others seek a review and reform of the WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules mandate that countries notify the WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment.” China’s glaring failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the style of weapons inspectors.
Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the global crisis nor help defuse the backlash against it. Its carrot-and-stick approach of mixing financial inducements with threats will only fuel greater mistrust of Beijing.
In fact, the pandemic has made the world arrive at its moment of truth: It must break China’s stranglehold on vital supply chains, including by incentivizing foreign manufacturers to move out of China, or else risk a situation in which Beijing weaponizes its leverage.
China’s mercantilist expansionism has led to a spate of new regulations in the EU, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form — and across all sectors — is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion of its pandemic-linked economic support package for a specific purpose: To help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.
Today, the world is looking for answers that only a thorough inquiry can reveal. If China refuses to join such a probe, it will encourage important economies to start distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, nontariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Such systematic “decoupling,” by undermining the communist monopoly on power, would be the CCP’s worst nightmare come true.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
China insists it has been fully transparent and hidden nothing on the killer coronavirus, whose international spread from Wuhan has turned into the greatest global disaster of our time. So why is Beijing rancorously opposing an independent international inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus?
The lethal virus emanated from China, leading to a paralyzing pandemic. The mounting socioeconomic costs of the unparalleled global crisis will remain immeasurable. In this light, is it unreasonable that the world wants to know how and why it happened?
Investigating the pandemic’s genesis is critical for another reason — this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Getting to the bottom of how the latest pathogen flared and spread is essential for designing rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local disease outbreak from spiraling into yet another pandemic.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. This is the organization whose repeated deference helped Beijing to cover its tracks, prompting President Donald Trump to say recently that the WHO “should be ashamed of themselves because they are like the public-relations agency for China.” In fact, several countries seeking an inquiry want the investigation to focus on the pandemic-related roles of both China and the WHO.
The WHO representative in China has said the “origins of virus are very important” to prevent “reoccurrence.” Yet Beijing has shut out even the WHO from its COVID-19 investigations.
Trump has offered China an incentive for cooperation by contrasting a mistake with willful action: “If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, I mean, then sure there should be consequences.” Beijing, however, has shied away from answering even basic questions.
For example, why did China stop flights from Wuhan to the rest of the country from January 23, yet allowed some international flights from Wuhan, including charter flights, thus facilitating the international spread of the virus? Or why did it recently clamp down on further research by Chinese scientists into the virus’s origins? It instituted a new policy mandating prior vetting after several Chinese research papers highlighted dangerous work on bat coronaviruses, with one study concluding that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.”
In fact, authorities shut a Shanghai laboratory a day after its January 12 publication of the coronavirus genome opened the global path to diagnostic tests. China has not shared any live virus sample with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution,” to quote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Moreover, China has not given foreign experts access to any facility or location where the virus may have originated, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The infamous “batwoman,” Shi Zhengli, was leading lab experiments there in manipulating natural coronaviruses from bats.
The dangerous research may explain why China, instead of sharing any coronavirus sample with the outside world, chose to destroy its lab samples, according to Pompeo and the Beijing-based Caixin Global news site. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that it is investigating whether the pandemic was “the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”
Just think — if China was not guilty of any coverup, wouldn’t it be welcoming the growing international calls for an independent inquiry and offering to provide assistance to such a probe? Such an inquiry would give China a chance to clear the air with the rest of the world.
Instead, Beijing seems to be showcasing its guilt by belligerently rejecting the pleas for such an inquiry, including by the European Commission president. China says such calls are destined to fail because the world, in the words of its foreign ministry, must avoid “pointing fingers, demanding accountability and other non-constructive approaches.”
Australia is Exhibit A. The country is more economically tied with China than with its security patron, the United States, which explains why it has long hedged its bets. Yet Australia has come under China’s withering attack for merely proposing that WHO member-nations support an independent inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus. Australia said it will push for such an investigation at the WHO assembly (the decision-making body) when it convenes for its annual meeting on May 17.
In response, the Chinese ambassador to Australia has lashed out at his host country, threatening punishment through Chinese boycotts of Australian wine, beef and tourism and education sectors. Australia, however, is not the only country to call for a probe. Sweden, for example, has echoed Australia’s call.
Meanwhile, as the Group of Seven (G7) countries, India and others seek a review of and to reform the WHO, China’s decision to give an additional $30 million to the agency appears aimed at frustrating such calls. International rules require countries to notify the WHO of “a public health emergency of international concern within 24 hours of assessment.” China’s glaring failure to do so has led to calls for introducing WHO inspectors with the power to enter a country to probe a disease outbreak in the style of weapons inspectors.
Make no mistake: Money alone can neither aid China’s strategy to deflect blame for the current crisis nor help defuse the increasing global backlash against it. Its carrot-and-stick approach of mixing financial inducements with threats will only fuel greater mistrust of Beijing.
China is genuinely worried that, once the crisis passes, battered countries or communities may seek a reckoning, including by suing it for damages. Trump has said that his administration is looking at a “very substantial” compensation claim against China. Against this background, Beijing has aggressively sought to rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, while trying to rewrite the outbreak’s history.
But calls are growing louder across the world to publicly hold China accountable for the pandemic’s mounting human and economic toll. The only way China can silence such calls and begin to repair the serious damage to its image is through an independent international inquiry.
If it blocks such a probe, China will pay enormous costs — not as reparations but by compelling other major economies to restructure their relationships with it, a process that ultimately would end its status as the global hub of vital supply chains. China’s mercantilist expansionism has already led to a spate of new regulations in the European Union, Australia, Germany, Spain and Italy. But India’s recent new rule mandating prior scrutiny of Chinese investment in any form – and across all sectors – is the first of its kind. Another major recent move is by Japan, which has set aside $2.2 billion to help Japanese firms shift manufacturing out of China.
If China refuses to come clean, important countries are likely to start economically distancing themselves from it, through new tariffs, non-tariff barriers, relocation of manufacturing and other policy moves. Eventually, such action could undermine the communist monopoly on power in China.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
If the World Health Organization is to spearhead international health policy and respond to disease outbreaks effectively, it must pursue deep reforms aimed at broadening its jurisdiction and authority. That won’t happen unless and until the WHO rebuilds its credibility, beginning with new leadership.
The COVID-19 pandemic, much like a major war, is a defining moment for the world – one that demands major reforms of international institutions. The World Health Organization, whose credibility has taken a severe beating of late, is a good place to start.
The WHO is the only institution that can provide global health leadership. But, at a time when such leadership is urgently needed, the body has failed miserably. Before belatedly declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, the WHO provided conflicting and confusing guidance. More damaging, it helped China, where the crisis originated, to cover its tracks.
It is now widely recognized that China’s political culture of secrecy helped to turn a local viral outbreak into the greatest global disaster of our time. Far from sounding the alarm when the new coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, the Communist Party of China (CPC) concealed the outbreak, allowing it to spread far and wide. Months later, China continues to sow doubt about the pandemic’s origins and withhold potentially life-saving data.
The WHO has been complicit in this deception. Instead of attempting independently to verify Chinese claims, the WHO took them at face value – and disseminated them to the world.
In mid-January, the body tweeted that investigations by Chinese authorities had found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus. Taiwan’s December 31 warning that such transmission was likely happening in Wuhan was ignored by the WHO, even though the information had been enough to convince the Taiwanese authorities – which may have better intelligence on China than anyone else – to institute preventive measures at home before any other country, including China.
The WHO’s persistent publicizing of China’s narrative lulled other countries into a dangerous complacency, delaying their responses by weeks. In fact, the WHO actively discouraged action. On January 11, with Wuhan gripped by the outbreak, the WHO said that it did “not recommend any specific health measures for travelers to and from Wuhan,” adding that “entry screening offers little benefit.” It also advised “against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on China.”
Even after China’s most famous pulmonologist, Zhong Nanshan, confirmed human-to-human transmission on January 20, the WHO continued to undermine effective responses by downplaying the risks of asymptomatic transmission and discouraging widespread testing. Meanwhile, China was hoarding personal protective equipment – scaling back exports of Chinese-made PPE and other medical gear and importing the rest of the world’s supply. In the final week of January alone, the country imported 56 million respirators and masks, according to official data.
By the time the WHO finally labeled the epidemic a public-health emergency on January 30, travelers from China had carried COVID-19 to far-flung corners of the world, including Australia, Brazil, France, and Germany. Yet, when Australia, India, Indonesia, Italy, and the US imposed restrictions on travel from China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus roundly criticized the actions, arguing that they would increase “fear and stigma, with little public-health benefit.”
At the same time, Tedros extolled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “very rare leadership” and China’s “transparency.” The bias has been so pronounced that Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently noted that, for many, the WHO is looking more like the “CHO” – the Chinese Health Organization.
Yet, despite the WHO’s repeated deference to China, the authorities there did not allow a WHO team to visit until mid-February. Three of the team’s 12 members were allowed to visit Wuhan, but no one was granted access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the high-containment laboratory from which a natural coronavirus derived from bats is rumored to have escaped. In fact, a study conducted at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou with support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China concluded in February that “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan” working on bat coronaviruses.
China did not always enjoy deferential treatment from the WHO. When the first twenty-first-century pandemic – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – emerged from China in 2002, the agency publicly rebuked the Chinese authorities for concealing vital information in what proved to be a costly cover-up.
Why has the WHO changed its tune? The answer is not money: China remains a relatively small contributor to the WHO’s $6 billion budget. The issue is the WHO’s leadership.
Tedros, who became the agency’s first non-physician chief in 2017 with China’s support, was accused of covering up three cholera outbreaks while serving as Ethiopia’s health minister. Nonetheless, few would have imagined that, as WHO chief, the microbiologist and malaria researcher would be complicit in China’s deadly deception.
The WHO’s faltering response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak underscored the imperative for reforms before Tedros was at the helm of the agency. But, rather than overseeing the needed changes, Tedros has allowed political considerations to trump public health.
As the costs of the mismanagement continue to mount, a reckoning is becoming all but inevitable. An online petition calling for Tedros to resign has garnered almost a million signatures. More consequential, President Donald Trump’s administration has suspended the WHO’s US funding, which accounts for 9.2% of its budget.
The world needs the WHO. But if the agency is to spearhead international health policy and respond to disease outbreaks effectively, it must pursue deep reforms aimed at broadening its jurisdiction and authority. That won’t happen unless and until the WHO rebuilds its credibility beginning with new leadership.
The staggering costs the world is bearing for the spread of the killer coronavirus from China promise to shake up the international order. China, for its part, faces lasting damage to its image. After all, if China had acted promptly and decisively, the Covid-19 outbreak could have been confined to its central Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. Instead, China’s initial, weeks-long coverup helped spawn the greatest global disaster of our time, sending the world hurtling toward a recession.
China is actually a repeat offender: It unleashed in a similar manner the world’s first 21st-century pandemic, SARS. The Communist Party of China (CPC) treated the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in November as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency, delaying the start of containment measures until January 23. The CPC not only turned a local outbreak into a global pandemic but also, by falsifying China’s Covid-19 data, it has staged a second coverup that has impeded an effective global response to the disease.
The pandemic has highlighted that only by loosening China’s grip on global supply chains – beginning with the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from Beijing’s machinations. Japan has already earmarked $2.2 billion to help Japanese manufacturers shift production out of China, while White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow says the US could lure American firms to move back to the US by paying their full moving costs.
China, meanwhile, has launched a public-relations blitzkrieg to rewrite the pandemic’s history and rebrand itself as the world’s counter-pandemic leader, including by exporting medical equipment to stricken countries and claiming to have won the Covid-19 battle at home. However, in a double whammy, China not only triggered the pandemic but also accentuated the devastation in some countries by exporting millions of flawed test kits and substandard personal protective equipment and face masks for health workers.
In fact, by blocking a mere discussion on the pandemic at the UN Security Council while it served as its president in March, China underlined its guilt. If India had unleashed this pandemic through a coverup, China would have been in the lead to hold a Security Council discussion and to inflict punishment with UN sanctions. But, as underscored by Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi’s telephone call, it sought India’s help to ward off international censure.
Transparency is essential to make us all safer. One country’s authoritarianism and opacity have contributed to spiralling coronavirus infections and deaths, mammoth economic losses, and a mounting social and psychological toll across the world.
The pandemic has also dented the World Health Organization’s credibility. Instead of providing global health leadership, the WHO under Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has become part of the problem by putting politics ahead of public health. Indeed, by disseminating China’s false narrative and dubious figures, the WHO lulled other nations into a dangerous complacency, thereby delaying national responses by multiple weeks.
Tedros, who uses his first name, was accused of covering up three cholera epidemics while serving as his country’s health minister. But who could have imagined that, as the WHO chief, he would do something even worse – lend a helping hand to China’s COVID-19 dual coverup? Nothing better illustrates the WHO’s credibility problem than the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso’s statement that many people worry that the agency’s acronym may need to change from WHO to “CHO” (“Chinese Health Organization”).
US President Donald Trump’s decision to halt US funding, which makes up nearly 10% of the WHO’s $6 billion annual budget, puts pressure on the agency to clean up its act. To restore its credibility, the WHO needs fresh leadership that can independently coordinate international health policy, including by reversing the Tedros-initiated politicisation of global health.
By affecting people everywhere, the pandemic is truly more global in its impacts than either of the two world wars. But like the world wars, this once-in-a-century pandemic is a defining moment that promises to introduce profound changes in societies and economies.
Just as fascism led to World War II, communism has engendered the greatest global health catastrophe of our time. The Chinese Communist Party, by initially covering up the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, helped unleash the world’s worst pandemic in more than a century. Today’s paralyzing pandemic, in terms of the extent of economic and social disruptions, has no parallel in modern history.
This underscores that China’s political system is a mortal threat to the world, even though its greatest impact is borne by Chinese nationals, who have to withstand its Orwellian surveillance and untold repression, including “re-education” of Muslims in the gulag. The pandemic’s inestimable human and economic toll has shown how one country’s authoritarianism can ravage the entire world.
Accentuating the pandemic is another extremism — one grounded in religion. The role of two proselytizing fundamentalist organizations in spreading the deadly coronavirus has exemplified how religious extremism threatens public health and national security.
South Korea’s secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus sparked a major crisis in the country by importing the virus from Wuhan, where it organized a congregation. More than half of South Korea’s COVID-19 cases have been linked to this doomsday sect.
Meanwhile, a transnational Islamist movement, the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), by holding large gatherings in Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, helped export the pathogen to multiple countries extending from Southeast Asia to West Africa. This Sunni missionary movement also held a session in New Delhi that helped spread the virus across India.
Through its large events, the Tablighi Jamaat — which has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups — has emerged as the super-spreader of COVID-19. This organization masks its millenarian philosophy and refusal to recognize national borders by claiming to be apolitical. But its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.
A number of Westerners convicted of terrorism were associated with the Tablighi Jamaat. They include “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation found after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that al-Qaida used the Tablighi Jamaat for recruiting new terrorists.
The Tablighi Jamaat’s February 27-March 1 gathering of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur spread the disease in six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Its March 11-12 congregation in Lahore, Pakistan, attracted up to a quarter million participants but ended up creating the largest viral vector in the Sunni world. It spread the coronavirus far and wide — from Kyrgyzstan to Gaza.
Indonesia banned a similar Tablighi Jamaat event on Sulawesi island but not before nearly 8,800 activists from 10 countries had gathered. But India inexplicably allowed Tablighi Jamaat missionaries, including many foreigners, to congregate in its capital city from March 13, a day after the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theaters.
Permitting this congregation, which authorities did not disperse until April 1, proved costly: Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Those who contracted the disease at the gathering spread the infection to families and other contacts across India after returning home.
The Tablighi Jamaat went ahead with its planned congregations in different countries despite the pandemic because, as one of its clerics put it, calling off any event would have amounted to “repudiating Allah’s directive.” However, with these gatherings becoming rapid multipliers of the coronavirus, the organization will be remembered for the deaths and suffering it caused in many communities.
The lesson is that religious fanaticism, like political despotism, is often deadly. Indeed, the blind faith of religious zealots has been a significant trigger in spreading the coronavirus, as Iran’s case underscores.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 disease in Iran, one of the world’s worst-affected countries, began in the sacred city of Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom discounted the coronavirus risks by saying prayer would keep the disease away.
Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the Qom representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The 80-year-old Khamenei himself said in early March that the coronavirus “is not that big a deal,” adding that “prayer can solve many problems.”
COVID-19 cases in Shiite communities in countries stretching from Afghanistan and Iraq to Bahrain and Lebanon have been traced to Iran.
Likewise, in Israel, ultraorthodox Jews caused the coronavirus to spread rapidly by flouting the government’s stay-at-home measures. Although they account for 12% of Israel’s total population, they make as much as 60% of the country’s COVID-19 cases in major hospitals. To help protect the wider population, security troops have now started policing ultraorthodox Jewish neighborhoods, imposing large fines on those violating containment measures.
However, no religious group has played a greater role in spreading the coronavirus across national frontiers than the Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers. The Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on Earth.
From China’s authoritarianism gifting the world a horrendous pandemic to the role of religious zealots in accelerating the spread of the disease, the global costs of political and religious extremism have been laid bare. Extremism is antithetical to the social and economic well-being of societies.
The virulent contagions of political and religious fanaticism have become more pronounced during the current pandemic, underscoring that the only way to contain the threat from extremists is to discredit their insidious ideologies. As the Algerian writer Mouloud Benzadi has put it, “Kill extremists and more extremists will appear. Kill extremist ideology and extremism will disappear.”
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.
Wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its political mission. Authorities in multiple countries view its missionary training as providing members a stepping stone to later join terrorist groups.
Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, chief of the Tablighi Jamaat (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
The greatest global health catastrophe of our time has helped shine a spotlight on the role of religious evangelists and other fundamentalists in spreading the China-originating COVID-19 disease. In a number of countries, from the United States and Israel to Iran and Indonesia, religious zealots — whether Christian, Jew, Shia or Sunni — have resisted adhering to government stay-at-home orders.
In some cases, their disobedience has led to spiralling COVID-19 infection rates. In Israel, for example, ultra-orthodox Jews account for 12% of the country’s total population but make as much as 60% of its COVID-19 cases in major hospitals, compelling the government to start policing ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in order to protect the wider population.
But no group has played a greater role in spreading the deadly coronavirus far and wide than the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), a transnational missionary movement of the Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam that boasts more than 80 million members across the world, including in Europe and North America. It was founded in 1927 near New Delhi in Mewat, Haryana, by a prominent Deobandi cleric, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi. Some commentators, not familiar with its ideology or larger goals, have presented in benign light the puritanical Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers.
In truth, the Tablighi Jamaat represents a fusion of religious obscurantism, missionary zeal and an enduring commitment to global jihad — a toxic cocktail that holds long-term implications for international security and for modern democracies. Basically, the Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on earth.
Its revivalist and regressive ideology is espoused by radical preachers and Islamist televangelists, such as Junaid Jamshed and Tariq Jamil, both Pakistanis. The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical, but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.
To be clear, the Tablighi Jamaat itself is not a hotbed of terrorism, despite some individual acts of terror by its associates. However, the ideological indoctrination it imparts to the largely illiterate and semiliterate youths it enlists helps to create recruits for militant and terrorist outfits. In fact, it has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups ranging from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to two of its spinoffs — the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and the Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. The Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami has proved a security challenge for India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in states like Gujarat where it has taken over mosques from moderate Muslims and installed radical clerics.
A bigger challenge has been posed by the other offshoot, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, an internationally designated terrorist organization. Founded by the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan branch, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, as the United Nations has put it, “was responsible for the hijacking of an Indian airliner on December 24, 1999, which resulted in the release of Masood Azhar”. Azhar was not the only terrorist released from Indian jails to meet the demands of the hijackers of the IC-814 flight.
In an ignominious episode unparalleled in modern history, then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh flew to Taliban-held Kandahar to hand-deliver Azhar and two other terrorists: Omar Sheikh, a purported financier of 9/11, whose subsequent conviction for journalist Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder was recently overturned by a Pakistani court; and Mushtaq Zargar, who went on to form the Al-Umar terror group. Azhar, for his part, established the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a front organization of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Just the way India’s terrorists-for-Rubaiya Sayed swap in 1989 aided Pakistan’s “politico-military decision”, as Benazir Bhutto put it, “to start low-intensity operations” in J&K, the Kandahar cave-in led to a qualitative escalation in cross-border terrorism.
The Tablighi Jamaat came under intense scrutiny in the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section said in 2003. “And we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”
Alex Alexiev, the late American counterterrorism expert of Bulgarian origin, described the Tablighi Jamaat in an essay as “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The hardcore jihadists the Tablighi Jamaat spawns in its ranks are later recruited by terrorist organizations as replacements for slain warriors. From Morocco and France to Indonesia and the Philippines, intelligence agencies and prosecutors have viewed the Tablighi Jamaat training as a stepping stone to membership in terrorist outfits. French intelligence officers, for example, called the Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber” of violent extremism, according to a 2002 report in Le Monde.
The current pandemic, for its part, has shown how the Tablighi Jamaat’s religious obscurantism,fanaticism, blinkered delusions of divine protection and open disdain for science can endanger public health and the larger social good. A prominent Tablighi Jamaat leader in Pakistan, Mufti Taqi Usmani, who is also a leading expert in sharia finance, claimed on national television that the Prophet, by coming in the dream of a Tablighi Jamaat activist, revealed “the cure for the coronavirus”, which was the recitation of certain Quranic verses.
Amid the raging pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat held ijtemas (or congregations) in several different countries even after Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah pilgrimage, Iran shut the holiest Shia sites, and multiple Islamic nations closed mosques, including Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, after closing off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners, has asked the more than one million Muslims planning to perform the hajj from late July to indefinitely delay their trips, raising the possibility that the pilgrimage could be cancelled for the first time in more than 200 years.
For the Tablighi Jamaat, however, the fast-spreading coronavirus was no deterrent to staging ijtemas in several countries. Calling off any ijtema — which is an annual three-day Tablighi Jamaat congregation to help instil a sense of brotherhood and a commitment to jihad among its members — would have amounted to repudiating Allah’s directive, according to Tablighi Jamaat clerics.
In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat’s New Delhi-based chief, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, pushed innocent Tablighis into the jaws of the new disease by talking about the “healing power” of the “markaz” — the mosque-cum-dormitory complex that serves as the organization’s headquarters. Saad, the great-grandson of the Tablighi Jamaat’s founder, told his followers that, in any event, the “best death” for any devout Muslim was in the markaz.
Saad’s sermons that “Allah will protect us” were redolent of how Shia clerics earlier turned the holy city of Qom into Iran’s COVID-19 epicentre. Indeed, Iran’s outbreak of the disease began in Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom openly discounted the coronavirus risks. Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom.
The Tablighi Jamaat’s ijtemas amid the pandemic unleashed the largest known viral vector in the Sunni world, spreading the disease in communities stretching from Southeast Asia to West Africa. The February 27-March 1 ijtema of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur helped spread the disease to six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Nearly two-thirds of coronavirus cases in Malaysia last month were linked to that ijtema.
The Kuala Lumpur gathering was followed by a much larger international ijtema at the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan headquarters at Raiwind, in suburban Lahore. A quarter of a million participants congregated in Raiwind on March 11-12 before authorities privately persuaded the organizers to end the ijtema and disperse. But hundreds of participants contracted COVID-19. Within days, they spread the disease far and wide, not just within Pakistan, but also elsewhere — from Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria.
After Raiwind came the New Delhi ijtema from March 13, although the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) had already declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited all large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theatres. While a large throng packed New Delhi’s Markaz Nizamuddin, Indonesia — in a last-minute decision — banned an ijtema in South Sulawesi just as it was about to begin on March 18 with nearly 8,800 participants. The Tablighi Jamaat initially resisted the Indonesian order but then complied by asking its activists to leave.
Despite knowing all this, including how the Kuala Lumpur ijtema helped spread COVID-19 across Southeast Asia, Indian federal and state authorities allowed the New Delhi ijtema to proceed. Maharashtra state, by contrast, acted wisely by cancelling permission for an ijtema in Vasai. The New Delhi congregation stretched for 18 days until the final 2,346 holdouts were evacuated from Markaz Nizamuddin on April 1.
Permitting this congregation has proved costly for India, including undermining the nationwide lockdown that has been in force since March 22 to combat COVID-19. Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Many contracted the coronavirus at the congregation, which they then spread to families and communities across India after returning home. Such has been the adverse fallout from the ijtema that the national lockdown is likely to be extended beyond April 14.
The fact that many participants from other Islamic countries at the New Delhi ijtema misused tourist visas for missionary activity has also cast an unflattering light on Indian security agencies. Initial investigations suggest that some of the foreign attendees, including preachers from Indonesia and Malaysia, brought the coronavirus to the gathering.
Today, with prayer failing to keep the disease away, Markaz Nizamuddin — which Saad portrays as the most sacred place after Mecca and Medina — has been shut after being disinfected by authorities. Saad, for his part, initially went into hiding to escape police investigations.
Looking ahead, the Tablighi Jamaat will not find it easy to repair the damage to its reputation. Long after the current pandemic is over, it will be remembered for the deaths and suffering that its ijtemas caused in many communities in the Sunni world. The ijtemas became rapid multipliers of the coronavirus.
The rancour over the Tablighi Jamaat’s pandemic-related role could, in fact, exacerbate the factional infighting that has increasingly racked the organization in recent years. The infighting largely centres on the leadership issue, with the more radical Tablighi Jamaat factions in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Britain challenging Saad’s headship. The infighting has triggered even violent clashes between rival groups, resulting in multiple deaths.
Such violence has been recurrent in Bangladesh, which hosts the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bishwa Ijtema (Global Congregation), supposedly the second-largest annual gathering of Sunni Muslims after hajj. Bishwa Ijtema is held usually in January along River Turag in Tongi, just outside Dhaka. The Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh, however, has split into two groups, with the more militant, anti-Saad faction supported by radical clerics and the hardline Islamist outfit Hefazat-e-Islam.
This faction, by staging a violent demonstration, forced Saad last year to return to New Delhi without joining the Bishwa Ijtema. At present, Saad’s followers are not allowed into the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bangladesh headquarters — the Kakrail Mosque in Dhaka.
In Pakistan, the longstanding military-mullah alliance, which has facilitated the military generals’ use of terrorist proxies against India and Afghanistan, looks askance at the Tablighi Jamaat’s global headquarters in New Delhi. Control over Islamist and terror groups is central to the generals’ power at home and their regional strategy.
Not surprisingly, the generals have encouraged the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan to be independent of the New Delhi group. In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan maintains close ties with the generals, at whose behest it allows state-sponsored terrorist groups to enlist some of its best students for military training. Such transfer of students usually takes place at the Tablighi Jamaat centre in Raiwind, where the organization’s star recruits receive four months of special missionary training.
The generals’ backing, however, has not protected the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan from attacks by jihadist groups that are outside the control of the military establishment. Several prominent Deobandi/Tablighi Jamaat clerics have been assassinated, including by the Pakistani Taliban — the Pakistan military’s nemesis.
Maintaining state control over clerics is also the reason why Saudi Arabia does not allow the Tablighi Jamaat to operate in the kingdom. A transnational Islamist movement headquartered in a non-Muslim country runs counter to the Saudi policy of keeping the religious establishment on a tight leash and using it to bankroll fundamentalist groups elsewhere.
Against this background, India’s indulgent act in letting the Tablighi Jamaat hold its ijtema in New Delhi, despite pandemic-related state curbs, has stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s widely publicized meeting with Saad in the early hours of March 29 to get the holdouts in Markaz Nizamuddin to leave could weaken Saad’s hand in the factional infighting.
More fundamentally, it is past time for India to recognize the threat from the Tablighi Jamaat’s regressive ideology. That ideology is antithetical to secularism and democracy, including religious tolerance and separation of church and state. The Tablighi Jamaat, by not recognizing national borders, also challenges the nation-state system.
Indeed, no counterterrorism strategy can ignore the intersection between religious fundamentalism and violent extremism that this movement symbolizes. Terrorist groups draw sustenance from the Tablighi Jamaat’s ideology of Islamic revivalism. These groups also enlist some of those that the Tablighi Jamaat trains. In a limited number of cases, Tablighi Jamaat associates have directly committed acts of terrorism, including convicted Westerners such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris.
The manner the Tablighi Jamaat’s obscurantism and obduracy contributed to the spread of COVID-19 is just the latest reminder of the group’s threat to national and international security.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War : Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
Historically, major wars have fostered profound changes in societies and economies. Today’s China-originating pandemic has created an acute international crisis akin to wartime. The world will not be the same after the pandemic.
The incalculable human and economic toll exacted by the rapid spread of the killer coronavirus promises to shake up global geopolitics, including China’s position in the world. The pandemic’s enduring impacts will likely extend from altering previously dependable supply chains to reshaping bilateral relationships.
President Donald Trump is right that “the world is paying a big price” for China’s initial, weeks-long cover-up of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan city and other parts of Hubei province. According to a South China Morning Post report based on Chinese government data, Wuhan doctors began recording one to five cases daily from November 17, before infection rates spiraled and a raging epidemic unfolded. However, China waited until January 21 to issue its first public warning. By then, the spread of the virus had gone beyond its control.
A study based on sophisticated modeling has indicated that if Chinese authorities had acted three weeks earlier than they did, the number of COVID-19 cases in China could have been reduced by 95% and the global spread of the disease limited. The virus spread farther and wider because the Communist Party of China (CPC) cared more about its reputation than the people’s suffering.
There is no evidence that the new coronavirus was engineered as a bioweapon. But some virus experts believe it may have accidentally escaped from one of the two Wuhan laboratories studying bat coronaviruses.
According to one study conducted at the South China University of Technology in Guangzhou and supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, “the killer coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan.” The study appeared in ResearchGate, a professional network for scientists and researchers, before being removed.
One Wuhan lab studying coronaviruses is located at the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the other is at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which the state-run China Daily, in a 2018 tweet, called “the largest virus bank in Asia” holding 1,500 different viruses. Significantly, soon after this writer on March 23 provided a link to that tweet while posting a comment on Twitter, China Daily deleted its old tweet.
Just months before the COVID-19 outbreak, a biomedical study conducted by four Chinese presciently warned that a new coronavirus would emanate from bats, with “an increased probability that this will occur in China.” Earlier, Hong Kong-based infectious disease specialists said in a 2007 study that the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-like “viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals,” constituted a Chinese “time bomb” that pointed to “reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories.”
Regardless of how the novel coronavirus originated in China, the fact is that the CPC treated the viral outbreak as a political embarrassment rather than a public health emergency. For the world’s strongest and richest dictatorship, power and control take precedence over everything else, including human lives.
The result has been a manmade calamity and an unparalleled global crisis fueling economic turmoil and social disruptions. This, in turn, has given rise to a popular tagline on social media, “China lied and people died.”
Make no mistake: China faces lasting damage to its image. And the damage could extend to its economic interests.
After the crisis is over, the West’s relationship with China is unlikely to go back to normal. Efforts would likely begin to loosen China’s grip on global supply chains. Moves are already afoot in the U.S. Congress to bring manufacture of essential medicines and medical devices back to the United States, which currently relies on China for 97% of all its antibiotics.
By accelerating the decoupling of the U.S. economy — and by extension of other Western economies — from the Chinese economy, the pandemic’s geopolitical effects could help transform international relations. The pandemic, by removing any doubt that China is America’s principal challenger and threat, could add momentum to the incremental adjustments that have been underway in the U.S.-China economic relationship. Indeed, the entire U.S.-China relationship could change forever.
Once countries ride out the current crisis, there will be a reckoning. After all, China’s disastrous missteps caused the coronavirus outbreak to spiral out of control, gifting the world a horrendous pandemic.
To be sure, the Chinese leadership is also facing a credibility problem at home over its secretive initial response to the outbreak. Many Chinese are still seething over their leaders’ initial concealment and mismanagement of the crisis. The public anger at home, coupled with the damage to China’s global image, has prompted Beijing to launch a public-relations blitzkrieg, including churning out unfounded conspiracy theories.
More fundamentally, China is seeking to aggressively rebrand itself as the global leader in combating a virus that spread from its own territory. Its rebranding efforts include counter-pandemic aid to developing countries, a pledge to donate $20 million to the WHO, a claim to have fully contained the coronavirus in its worst-affected areas, and disseminating disinformation to obscure its costly initial cover-up.
With the help of the CPC’s propaganda organs, Beijing is trying to fashion a narrative that China is an example of how to control the spread of COVID-19. In fact, like the arsonist offering to extinguish the fire it started, China is now seeking to help other countries combat a dangerous pathogen after its own gross negligence sparked the pandemic.
Beijing’s proactive attempt to rewrite the history of the pandemic, even as much of the world grapples with its escalating consequences, highlights its well-oiled propaganda machine. To justify its handling of the outbreak, it has even released a book, “A Battle Against Epidemic,” in multiple languages, including English, Arabic, Spanish, French and Russian.
To many other countries, one key lesson from the pandemic is that, in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, secrecy and obfuscation are antithetical to globalization and international security. Transparency is essential to make us all safer. China cannot have its cake and eat it too. It must fundamentally reform and embrace transparency and international norms.
The pandemic is truly a defining moment that could help reshape the international order. If it upends the world order as we know it, history will record China’s role as the principal trigger.
Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
The COVID-19 pandemic should be a wake-up call for a world that has accepted China’s lengthening shadow over global supply chains for far too long. Only by reducing China’s global economic influence – beginning in the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from the country’s political pathologies.
The new COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to more than 100 countries – bringing social disruption, economic damage, sickness, and death – largely because authorities in China, where it emerged, initially suppressed information about it. And yet China is now acting as if its decision not to limit exports of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and medical supplies – of which it is the dominant global supplier – was a principled and generous act worthy of the world’s gratitude.
When the first clinical evidence of a deadly new virus emerged in Wuhan, Chinese authorities failed to warn the public for weeks and harassed, reprimanded, and detained those who did. This approach is no surprise: China has a long history of “killing” the messenger. Its leaders covered up severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus, for over a month after it emerged in 2002, and held the doctor who blew the whistle in military custody for 45 days. SARS ultimately affected more than 8,000 people in 26 countries.
This time around, the Communist Party of China’s proclivity for secrecy was reinforced by President Xi Jinping’s eagerness to be perceived as an in-control strongman, backed by a fortified CPC. But, as with the SARS epidemic, China’s leaders could keep it under wraps for only so long. Once Wuhan-linked COVID-19 cases were detected in Thailand and South Korea, they had little choice but to acknowledge the epidemic.
About two weeks after Xi rejected scientists’ recommendation to declare a state of emergency, the government announced heavy-handed containment measures, including putting millions on lockdown. But it was too late: many thousands of Chinese were already infected with COVID-19, and the virus was rapidly spreading internationally. US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has said that China’s initial cover-up “probably cost the world community two months to respond,” exacerbating the global outbreak.
Beyond the escalating global health emergency, which has already killed thousands, the pandemic has disrupted normal trade and travel, forced many school closures, roiled the international financial system, and sunk global stock markets. With oil prices plunging, a global recession appears imminent.
None of this would have happened had China responded quickly to evidence of the deadly new virus by warning the public and implementing containment measures. Indeed, Taiwan and Vietnam have shown the difference a proactive response can make.
Taiwan, learning from its experience with SARS, instituted preventive measures, including flight inspections, before China’s leaders had even acknowledged the outbreak. Likewise, Vietnam quickly halted flights from China and closed all schools. Both responses recognized the need for transparency, including updates on the number and location of infections and public advisories on how to guard against COVID-19.
Thanks to their governments’ policies, both Taiwan and Vietnam – which normally receive huge numbers of travelers from China daily – have kept total cases under 50. Neighbors that were slower to implement similar measures, such as Japan and South Korea, have been hit much harder.
If any other country had triggered such a far-reaching, deadly, and above all preventable crisis, it would now be a global pariah. But China, with its tremendous economic clout, has largely escaped censure. Nonetheless, it will take considerable effort for Xi’s regime to restore its standing at home and abroad.
Perhaps that is why China’s leaders are publicly congratulating themselves for not limiting exports of medical supplies and APIs used to make medicines, vitamins, and vaccines. If China decided to ban such exports to the United States, the state-run news agency Xinhua recently noted, the US would be “plunged into a mighty sea of coronavirus.” China, the article implies, would be justified in taking such a step. It would simply be retaliating against “unkind” US measures taken after COVID-19’s emergence, such as restricting entry to the US by Chinese and foreigners who had visited China. Isn’t the world lucky that China is not that petty?
Maybe so. But that is no reason to trust that China will not be petty in the future. After all, China’s leaders have a record of halting other strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals) to punish countries that defied them.
Moreover, this is not the first time China has considered weaponizing its dominance in global medical supplies and APIs. Last year, Li Daokui, a prominent Chinese economist, suggested curtailing Chinese API exports to the US as a countermeasure in the trade war. “Once the export is reduced,” Li noted, “the medical systems of some developed countries will not work.”
That is no exaggeration. A US Department of Commerce study found that 97% of all antibiotics sold in the US come from China. “If you’re the Chinese and you want to really just destroy us,” Gary Cohn, former chief economic adviser to US President Donald Trump, observed last year, “just stop sending us antibiotics.”
If the specter of China exploiting its pharmaceutical clout for strategic ends were not enough to make the world rethink its cost-cutting outsourcing decisions, the unintended disruption of global supply chains by COVID-19 should be. In fact, China has had no choice but to fall behind in producing and exporting APIs since the outbreak – a development that has constrained global supply and driven up the prices of vital medicines.
That has already forced India, the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs, to restrict its own exports of some commonly used medicines. Almost 70% of the APIs for medicines made in India come from China. If China’s pharmaceutical plants do not return to full capacity soon, severe global medicine shortages will become likely.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism. It should be a wake-up call for political and business leaders who have accepted China’s lengthening shadow over global supply chains for far too long. Only by loosening China’s grip on global supply networks – beginning with the pharmaceutical sector – can the world be kept safe from the country’s political pathologies.
The growing global crisis over the spread of a deadly coronavirus from China — which, instead of quickly instituting public health warnings and containment measures, suppressed all information until faced with a raging epidemic — has helped obscure U.S. President Donald Trump’s significant visit to India last week. The United States and India agreed during the visit to step up strategic collaboration, including with Japan.
Trump’s standalone trip underscored how the expanding U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. Trump’s visit, like that of his predecessor Barack Obama five years ago, may not have yielded any major agreement, but it has set the direction toward greater Indo-American collaboration in the face of China’s muscular rise and a strengthening Sino-Russian strategic nexus.
Trump summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.” The visit will be remembered for his famous words at a mega-rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.” Modi, for his part, called the U.S.-India relationship “the most important partnership of the 21st century.”
Since returning home, Trump has been gushing over his visit, calling India an “incredible country” and Modi “a great gentleman, great leader” and saying, “Our relationship with India is extraordinary right now.”
The U.S. partnership with India meshes well with the fundamental shift in America’s China policy that Trump has initiated. The far-reaching shift will likely outlast Trump’s presidency because it reflects a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the failed U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing since the 1970s ought to be replaced with concrete counteraction. The shift indeed promises to reshape global geopolitics and trade.
Even before Trump set foot on Indian soil, sections of the American media, however, lampooned him — from claiming he was going to India for big crowds because he “relishes spectacle” to wondering how the steak-loving president, who supposedly had never been seen to “eat a vegetable,” would survive in India with its beef-free menu.
Sectarian clashes in an outlying, working-class neighborhood that is located in Delhi state but not in New Delhi also came in handy to those seeking to obscure the Trump visit’s significance. “New Delhi Streets Turn Into Battleground As Trump Visits,” ran the hyperbolic headline in The New York Times, whose relentless attacks on Trump surpass its perennial bashing of India and Japan. However, it is more cautious on China.
Trump’s “worthwhile trip” to India, as he put it after returning home, was packed with color and pageantry, including a visit with his wife, daughter and son-in-law to the monument to love, the Taj Mahal. Trump, in fact, kicked off his whirlwind tour with the largest rally any U.S. president has ever addressed in recent memory.
The huge campaign-style rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad was attended by at least 125,000 people, with countless thousands more lining Trump’s motorcade route from the airport to the newly constructed stadium. In crowd size, the mega-rally almost equaled Trump’s 10 “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) rallies at home, all held at once. This explains why Trump, after returning home, told a MAGA rally, “I may never be excited again about a crowd after going to India.”
During the visit, the two sides announced that they have finalized a limited trade agreement, which is to be signed after legal vetting. It will serve as “phase one” of a comprehensive trade pact.
The trip yielded a $3.4 billion military helicopter contract, the latest in a string of major U.S. arms sales to India in recent years. The U.S. has become India’s largest weapons supplier, with the two countries also holding more frequent joint military exercises.
According to the U.S. national security strategy report, America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.” And as Trump put it before leaving India, “I believe the U.S. should be India’s premier defense partner and that’s the way it’s working out.”
Under Trump, the U.S. has become an increasingly important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. Modi has agreed to further ramp up imports of American oil and gas to help cut India’s large trade surplus with the U.S.
India is important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region that can countervail China’s military and economic moves. India is thus pivotal to the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept originally authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the U.S. is pivotal to advancing long-term interests. Under Modi, India has been gravitating closer to the U.S. without undermining its cherished strategic autonomy.
Trump’s personal diplomacy with Modi has helped accelerate bilateral cooperation. Both Trump and Modi are nationalists who, critics claim, have chosen populism over constitutionalism while pursuing divisive policies. Each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home.
Trump and Modi were both outsiders whose rapid rise to the highest office surprised their national establishment. In fact, like the Washington establishment’s inveterate antipathy to Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Modi, despite his landslide re-election win more than nine months ago. And, like Trump, Modi has been savaged in the Western media, with the criticisms lapped up by his domestic critics, whose own accusations, in turn, are picked up by the same press, ensuring a self-sustaining cycle.
Against this background, Trump and Modi consciously eschewed saying anything during the visit that could give a handle to each other’s domestic critics. For example, asked about a recent amendment to India’s citizenship law that has rancorously pitted Modi’s supporters against his critics, the U.S. president dismissed the issue as India’s internal matter.
The U.S. and India may both be bitterly polarized and ideologically divided at home, but there is strong bipartisan support in each country for a closer partnership with the other. The forward momentum in the U.S.-India relationship, in fact, has been sustained in this century by successive governments in both countries.
One factor driving the U.S. and India toward each other is the natural affinity between two large democracies whose values contrast with creeping illiberalism elsewhere. Another factor, given China’s hegemonic ambitions and territorial revisionism, is the strategic logic of building a stable power balance in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. As the joint statement at the end of Trump’s visit emphasized, “A close partnership between India and the U.S. is central to a free, open, inclusive, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.”
The China factor, including the imperative for Chinese transparency, was apparent from the joint statement’s references to the South China Sea and to the commitment to strengthen consultation through U.S.-India-Japan trilateral summits and the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. quadrilateral meetings.
In recent weeks, the global coronavirus crisis, which has wiped trillions of dollars off world stocks, has also underscored the need for Chinese transparency. Had China responded with preventive measures and health warnings as soon as the coronavirus outbreak occurred, instead of suppressing all information about it for weeks, the world would have been spared the huge financial and public health costs and supply chain and social life disruptions. And many of those who have died would still be alive.
The U.S. and India may disagree on multiple issues, including the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges. But, as they work together, they form an unbeatable partnership.
The blossoming of the U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries, which explains U.S. President Donald Trump’s just-completed stand-alone trip to India. Mr. Trump’s visit, like that of his predecessor Barack Obama five years ago, may not have yielded any major agreement, but it has set the direction toward greater U.S.-India collaboration in the face of a growing China-Russia alliance.
Mr. Trump, who was accompanied by his wife, daughter, son-in-law and a high-powered official delegation, summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.”
However, Hindu-Muslim rioting in an outlying, working-class Delhi area cast an unflattering spotlight on sectarian tensions in India during Mr. Trump’s second day in the world’s largest democracy. Even before Mr. Trump set foot on Indian soil, sections of the American media lampooned him – from claiming he was going to India for big crowds because he “relishes spectacle” to wondering how the steak-loving President, who supposedly had never been seen to “eat a vegetable,” would survive in India with its beef-free menu.
The communal violence, triggered after a Hindu politician issued an ultimatum for an end to Muslim protesters’ blockade of the suburb’s main highway, occurred principally over two days and left nearly three dozen dead. The blockade, which also forced the shutdown of local subway stations, appeared timed to coincide with Mr. Trump’s visit to highlight opposition to India’s recent amendment of a decades-old citizenship law. The amendment offers a fast-track to citizenship for members of all religious minorities who fled persecution in three neighbouring countries where Islam is the state religion: Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The rioting, restricted to the blockade-hit neighbourhood (which is in Delhi state, but not part of New Delhi), came in handy to those seeking to obscure the gains from Mr. Trump’s visit. “New Delhi Streets Turn Into Battleground As Trump Visits,” ran the hyperbolic headline in The New York Times, whose relentless attacks on Mr. Trump surpass its perennial India bashing.
Mr. Trump’s unaffected tour was packed with colour and pageantry, including a visit with his family to the monument to love, the Taj Mahal. Mr. Trump, in fact, kicked off his whirlwind tour with the largest rally any U.S. president has addressed in recent memory.
The huge campaign-style rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home base – was attended by some 125,000 people, with countless thousands more lining Mr. Trump’s motorcade route from the airport to the newly constructed stadium.
After the royal pomp and pageantry lavished on him from Ahmedabad to New Delhi, Mr. Trump exulted, “Nobody else that came here got the kind of reception we got.”
The trip was not without substance. It yielded a US$3.4-billion military helicopter contract, the latest in a string of major U.S. arms sales to India in recent years. The United States has become India’s largest weapons supplier, with the two countries also holding more frequent joint military exercises. As Mr. Trump put it before leaving India, “I believe the U.S. should be India’s premier defence partner and that’s the way it’s working out.”
The two sides announced they have almost finalized a limited trade agreement, which will be ready for signature after legal vetting. The agreement is to serve as “phase one” of a comprehensive trade pact.
Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. has become an increasingly important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after the U.S. and China. Mr. Modi has agreed to further ramp up imports of U.S. oil and gas to help cut India’s large trade surplus with the United States.
India is important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific region that can countervail China’s military and economic moves. For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the U.S. is pivotal to advancing long-term interests. Despite bilateral differences over the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges, the U.S.-India partnership, as Mr. Trump noted, “has never been as good as it is now.”
Mr. Trump’s personal diplomacy with Mr. Modi has stood out. Both are right-of-centre nationalists who have faced similar criticisms, including accusations of being blinkered demagogues, pursuing divisive policies and choosing populism over constitutionalism.
Indeed, each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home. Citizens either love or loathe them. And like the Washington establishment’s antipathy to Mr. Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Mr. Modi.
Mr. Trump’s critics at home say that, under his leadership, the world no longer respects the U.S. or the American president. Mr. Trump’s adulation-filled India visit showed otherwise. Mr. Modi’s domestic critics claim he is isolating India and making it less tolerant. Mr. Trump’s solo visit to India – and the praise he lavished on India’s tolerance and freedom and on Mr. Modi’s commitment to religious freedom – showed otherwise.
During the visit, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi consciously eschewed saying anything that could give a handle to each other’s domestic critics. For example, asked about the amended citizenship law, Mr. Trump said it was India’s internal matter.
The two, however, heaped praise on each other. Mr. Trump called Mr. Modi a “great leader,” saying he is “a very, very strong person, very tough” and “he’ll take care of” the terrorism problem facing India. Mr. Modi, for his part, called Mr. Trump a “true friend of India.”
The eventful visit will be remembered for Mr. Trump’s famous words at the mega-rally that were greeted with thunderous applause: “America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Exactly a year ago, India carried out a daring airstrike at Balakot to signal that Pakistan’s terrorism export would no longer be cost-free. Internationally, this marked the first-ever conventional military attack by a nuclear-armed nation on the undeniably sovereign territory of another nuclear-weapons state. The fact that Indian warplanes, unchallenged, struck a deep target in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province led an apprehensive Pakistan to close its airspace to all international overflights for months thereafter.
According to the “theory of nuclear revolution”, nuclear weapons offer a powerful deterrent against a major attack. Attacking another nuclear-armed state, according to this theory, is dangerous because it could invite a nuclear reprisal. Pakistan’s nuclear shield, however, did not prevent India from retaliating against a Pakistan-aided terrorist attack on a security convoy in Pulwama, in Indian Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
The Pakistani nuclear shield failed to deter the Indian strike largely because Pakistan’s actions have long militated against the dominant theory of nuclear revolution. The theory posits that, by guaranteeing a country’s security, nuclear weapons make nations less inclined to engage in aggression or belligerent acts.
Instead of viewing nuclear weapons essentially as tools of deterrence, a scofflaw Pakistan — with China’s protection — has been emboldened to engage in roguish actions. By valuing nuclear weapons as political tools for belligerent goals, including seeking to blunt its widening power asymmetry with India through a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy, Pakistan has sought to validate the rival “theory of nuclear opportunism”.
Balakot, however, showed that, when Pakistan’s nuclear bluff was called, its situation paralleled Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale about the emperor with “invisible” clothing who was indeed naked. By leaving a gaping hole in the nuclear shield behind which Pakistan has pursued its terrorist agenda, Balakot sent a chilling message to the all-powerful Pakistani generals, including about the vulnerability of their military and intelligence headquarters. And, as if to underline that power respects power, the strike drew no international criticism, but prompted a chorus of calls to Pakistan to root out the terrorist entities it harbours.
Tellingly, no major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack has occurred in India in the last 12 months, underscoring Balakot’s game-changing potential. As the late senior minister, Arun Jaitley, declared, “The security doctrine of India has changed. We now attack the point of origin of terror”. Balakot indeed created the strategic space for India to carry out the constitutional reorganization of its part of J&K.
Pakistan’s generals know that, with its threshold-breaching Balakot strike, India turned the page on its failed policy of strategic restraint. Indian Air Force chief Rakesh Bhadauria has pointed to a paradigm “shift” in India’s posture, with a new political resolve to “punish perpetrators of terrorism”. Given that India’s new chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and its new Army chief, General Mukund Naravane, have both spoken about liberating Pakistan-held J&K, Pakistan’s generals are currently loath to provoke a conflict with India, especially when their cash-strapped country is relying on international dole-outs.
The Balokot attack, like India’s 2016 ground-launched surgical strike, targeted the enemy’s non-uniformed soldiers — terrorist proxies. Indeed, India went out of its way to say it hit a “non-military target” at Balakot, although the terrorist group whose camp was struck is a known front organization of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces and employs them cost-effectively as a force multiplier against India. This explains why, just 30 hours after the Balakot strike, Pakistan tried to bomb military sites in Indian J&K in a daring aerial blitz.
In repulsing the Pakistani aerial attack, India not only lost a MiG-21, with its pilot captured by Pakistan, but also mistakenly shot down its own Mi17 chopper — a horrific incident in which six Air Force officers and a civilian were killed. Pakistan’s attack opened an opportunity for India to wreak massive punishment. But, averse to triggering a spiral of escalation at a time when national elections were looming, India let go of that opportunity.
Against this background, if Pakistan’s risk-seeking behaviour, territorial revisionism and terrorist agenda persist, the risks of a major military confrontation with India cannot be discounted. India seems no longer willing to put up with Pakistan’s terrorism-driven asymmetric warfare, which cumulatively has proved costlier for India in financial, human and internal-security terms than even the historic 1971 War that gave birth to Bangladesh.
Deterrence works if the punitive response to aggression is prompt and effective. Pakistan’s generals are uncertain about the extent or severity of an Indian military response if they stage another major cross-border terrorist attack.
To compel a fundamental change in Pakistan’s conduct, India appears ready to impose greater costs. The next Indian reprisal attack could seek to target the terror masters, not their surrogates. Unless the puppeteers — not their puppets, who essentially serve as cannon fodder — begin bearing escalating costs, hoping that Pakistan would reform and be at peace with itself would be equivalent to expecting to straighten a dog’s tail.
US President Donald Trump’s India visit, with his wife Melania, is significant for several reasons, including the fact that this is his first overseas trip since his acquittal earlier this month in the impeachment trial. Like his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trump has become a lightning rod in his country’s political churn. The hyper-partisan domestic politics in the US and India has been plumbing new depths, poisoning the discourse in both countries.
To be sure, the US and India are not the only democracies weighed down by a spike in polarization or by incivility in political discourse. Partisanship has become more intense than ever in a number of other democracies.
However, bitter partisanship and a national divide stand out in the US and India. Nothing illustrated this better than the vote in the US House of Representatives to impeach Trump along party lines, without the support of a single Republican member. Impeachment should never have proceeded without broad, bipartisan support. Even Trump’s Senate acquittal was essentially along party lines.
Trump and Modi, despite their very different backgrounds, have a lot in common politically. Each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home. Citizens either love or loathe them. Like the Washington establishment’s antipathy to Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Modi. This explains why Modi’s re-election in a landslide victory nine months ago has only helped to solidify the polarization in the country.
In fact, Trump and Modi are accused by their critics at home of behaving like authoritarian strongmen. The truth is that American and Indian democracies are robust enough to deter authoritarian creep. Modi’s critics, for example, only underscore India’s robust freedoms by hurling — without fear of reprisal — all sorts of accusations at him, including that he is striking “a historic blow” to Indian democracy and turning India into a “Hindu Pakistan”.
In both the US and India, the widening schism between the pro- and anti-Trump/Modi forces — who, segregated in their own ideological silos, inhabit increasingly separate realities about virtually everything — is strengthening divisive politics. This, in turn, has made politics increasingly vitriolic.
Against this background, is it any surprise that Trump decided, even before the Senate acquittal, to meet his friend Modi in India, including in the latter’s home base of Ahmedabad? Trump’s visit to the world’s largest democracy was overdue, given that he has already been to the other major Asian countries, such as China and Japan. His India visit, significantly, is a solo trip.
Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics. This is why Modi decided to honour Trump at an event to be attended by some 110,000 people at the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. Last September, Modi and Trump had walked hand-in-hand at a rock-concert-like event, called “Howdy, Modi”, at the NRG Stadium in Houston.
When Trump joined Modi’s public rally in Houston, which was attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans and a number of American congressmen and senators, it underscored the growing closeness of the US-India relationship. Now the Ahmedabad event and Trump’s meetings in New Delhi, as the White House has said, will “further strengthen the US-India strategic partnership and highlight the strong and enduring bonds between the American and Indian people”.
With Trump’s focus on getting re-elected in November, his India visit will also endear him to the increasingly influential and wealthy Indian-Americans, who now number about 4 million, or 1.3% of the total US population. They not only matter in some of the swing states for the presidential election, but also are important political donors.
The rationale for closer ties
The strengthening American ties with democratic India have assumed greater geopolitical importance for Washington, given that US policies in this century have counterproductively fostered a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power, Russia, and the world’s second-largest economy, China. But during the Cold War years, US President Richard Nixon’s administration, seeking to avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, forged strategic cooperation with the weaker party, China, in order to balance the stronger Soviet Union. China’s co-option played an important role in the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. Today, however, US policy has helped build a growing Sino-Russian nexus.
According to the last US national security strategy report, America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner”. India is pivotal to the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, a concept originally authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. India occupies a critical position in the western part of the Indo-Pacific: It has a coastline of 7,500 kilometres, with more than 1,380 islands and over two million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his New Delhi visit last June, said: “We must understand that not only is the US important to India but India is very important to the US”. India meshes well with Trump’s export plan to create large numbers of well-paid American jobs. As Trump told the Houston rally, “We are working to expand American exports to India, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets”.
Moreover, the US and India are natural allies in countering the growing global scourge of jihadist terrorism. At Modi’s Houston rally, Trump said: “Today, we honour all of the brave American and Indian military service members who work together to safeguard our freedom. We stand proudly in defence of liberty, and we are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”.
In the way Modi casts himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from terrorists and other subversives, Trump has prioritized border defences to keep out those that “threaten our security”. As Trump declared at the Houston rally, to the delight of Indians, “Border security is vital to the US. Border Security is vital to India. We understand that”.
Considering such a congruent interest, US-India counterterrorism cooperation ought to be robust, mutually beneficial and mutually reinforcing, while America’s relationship with Pakistan by now should have come apart. However, while US-India counterterrorism cooperation is growing, the Trump administration has helped secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for cash-strapped Pakistan and opposed that country’s inclusion on the blacklist of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
Trump has also drawn a perverse equivalence between the terrorism-exporting Pakistan and its victim India. Indeed, according to the White House, Trump, at his meeting with Modi in New York last autumn, privately “encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan”, and then publicly said, “Those are two nuclear countries. They’ve got to work it out”. Geopolitically, Pakistan remains important for America’s regional interests, including in relation to Afghanistan, Iran and India.
Consider a more fundamental factor: Whereas the US significantly aided China’s economic rise from the 1970s by co-opting Beijing into its anti-Soviet strategy, Washington today has no such compelling geostrategic motivation to assist India’s rise. The US does not feel as threatened by Sino-Russian cooperation as it did from the Soviet-Chinese partnership during the Cold War, largely because Russia now appears in irreversible decline. Indeed, the more Russia has moved closer to China, the more it has eroded its influence, as in Central Asia.
India is important for the US because of its large and rapidly growing market and its strategic location in the Indo-Pacific. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific that can countervail China’s military and economic moves.
The phrase “Indo-Pacific”, as then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded to, was intended to emphasize that the US and India are “bookends” in that region. Recently, however, the Trump administration has redefined the Indo-Pacific as a region extending to the Persian Gulf, in keeping with its fixation on Iran. This is one reason why its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy has still to gain traction.
The US views an economically booming India as good for American businesses. Trump in New Delhi will meet with top executives of Indian companies that are major investors in the US. For example, Mahindra and Mahindra has announced it is investing $1 billion in the US, while the Tata Group is one of the largest multinationals operating from American soil. Today, the transactional elements in the US-Indian partnership, unfortunately, have become more conspicuous than the geostrategic dimensions.
Trump, a friend of India?
Trump’s foreign policy has centred on a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and tough negotiations even with friends. Trump’s unilateralism and transactional approach have reflected a belief that the US can pursue hard-edged negotiations with friends without imperilling its broader strategic interests. This approach has rattled many of America’s longstanding allies.
In India, however, Trump still enjoys a high positive rating. He may have privately mocked Modi’s English pronunciation but has developed a personal rapport with him.
Successive US administrations, in fact, have been good at massaging India’s collective ego, with statements like “the growing partnership between the world’s oldest democracy and largest democracy”. Pompeo, for example, declared, “Modi hai to sab mumkin hai”. Pompeo’s praise of US-India ties, however, has failed to obscure the differences and disputes resulting from the Trump administration’s unilateral actions and demands.
Despite his bonhomie with Modi, Trump, for example, has waged a mini-trade war against India, although in the shadow of the much larger US-China trade war. He has raised duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to the US and imposed a restrictive visa policy to squeeze the huge Indian information-technology industry. In March 2018, he increased tariffs on steel and aluminium from India.
Indeed, no sooner had Modi’s second term started in May 2019 than Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the US market by expelling the country from the Generalized System of Preferences. Soon thereafter, the office of the United States Trade Representative warned of a Section 301 investigation against India if trade differences were not sorted out.
The array of US demands on India have ranged from lifting price controls on heart stents, knee implants and other medical devices to relaxing e-commerce rules. Unlike China, where homegrown players like Alibaba have cornered the e-commerce market, India has allowed Amazon and Walmart to establish a virtual duopoly over its e-commerce. Would the US, like India, permit two foreign companies to control its e-commerce?
Some US demands actually represent gross insensitivity. For example, the US has pressured India — where many citizens are vegetarian — to open its market to American cheese and other products from cows that have been raised on feed containing bovine and other animal by-products. This would offend the religious and cultural sensitivities of many Indians, especially Hindus who do not consume beef or its by-products. For India, the routine administration of antibiotics to healthy cows in the US also raises public-health concerns, including the possible spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Despite Modi’s unmistakably US-friendly foreign policy, the Trump administration has mounted pressure on India not just on trade but also on other flanks, including oil and defence. For example, not content with the US having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, Washington has sought to lock that country as America’s exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system.
The US said last July, after it terminated India’s sanctions waiver for importing Iranian oil, that it was “highly gratified” by New Delhi’s compliance with sanctions against Iran. It is really one-sided gratification. The US sanctions have driven up India’s oil-import bill by stopping it from buying crude from next-door Iran. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. But the US oil and petroleum exports to India come at a higher price than from Iran.
A transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran, bypassing Pakistan, shows that New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran is more than just about oil. US policy, however, is pushing India out of Iran while letting China fill that space. China has deepened its ties with Tehran: It has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors.
A US-India trade deal, however framed, is unlikely to help fully lift US pressure on India, whose economy is now growing at the slowest rate in years, with unemployment at a 45-year high. Some of Trump’s trade-related demands would help open the Indian market further to Chinese dumping, thereby widening India’s already-huge trade deficit with China. Indeed, lumping the world’s largest democracy with America’s main strategic competitor, Trump is pushing to terminate India’s and China’s developing-nation status at the World Trade Organization.
Meanwhile, Trump’s policy, by seeking to normalize US relations with Pakistan, has helped ease international pressure on that country to take concrete, verifiable actions to root out the 22 UN-designated terrorist entities that it harbours. Pakistan, for its part, has shown that there are no significant economic consequences for being on the FATF’s “grey” list. Just last summer it secured a large IMF bailout package with US backing. It has also received billions of dollars in emergency loans from China, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The FATF admits that Pakistan has failed to meet the group’s major parameters against terror financing. Yet, with the US loath to exercise the leverage it has to reform a scofflaw Pakistan, that country has not been moved from the FATF’s “grey” to “black” list.
Modi, speaking at the UN General Assembly last September, warned against the politicization of international counterterrorism mechanisms. The global war on terror, however, has always been about geopolitics. Otherwise, why would the US align with Al Qaeda in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or why would China seek to shield the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists based in Pakistan?
Geopolitical factors, including Trump’s effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban, also explain why the US president, despite a Kashmir mediation offer being a red rag to India, has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict. In fact, Trump has rewarded Pakistan with IMF and other aid and then offered to mediate the Kashmir conflict. Likewise, Trump first green-lighted Turkey’s military assault on America’s Kurdish allies and then offered to broker peace between the Turks and Kurds, saying “I hope we can mediate”.
Trump’s mediation offer has little to do with finding a way to resolve the Kashmir problem; it is more about making the US a stakeholder. As long as Indian policy seeks American assistance to rein in Pakistan, instead of tackling the problem directly, the US will strive to make itself a stakeholder in the India-Pakistan relationship.
Still, the US is a key partner for India
Despite bilateral differences on several important subjects, the US remains a key partner for India. Accelerating cooperation and collaboration with the US has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. Under Modi, India has been gravitating closer to the US in ways that do not undermine India’s longstanding partnership with Russia or provoke retribution from China.
The deepening cooperation has led to a series of bilateral agreements in recent years. In 2016, the US and India signed a logistics agreement on access to each other’s military base. A 2018 accord allows US and Indian forces to share encrypted communications. And a 2019 agreement permits each other’s private companies to transfer classified defence technologies.
Furthermore, the frequency and complexity of US-India military exercises have increased. Last November, the US military held its first joint exercises with all three of India’s military branches — the army, the navy and the air force.
To be sure, US-India military collaboration poses some challenges. The US has little experience in developing close military collaboration with countries that are not its treaty-based allies. All its major military partners are its allies in a patron-client framework. India, however, is its strategic partner (not an ally) that expects some degree of equality. Yet, in opposing India’s purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, the US has cited “military interoperability” issues, as if India were a NATO member or its formal ally like Turkey, which is also acquiring the S-400.
India’s long legacy of dependence on Russia for strategic weapons — ranging from a nuclear-powered submarine to an aircraft carrier — will change only through a robust Indo-US partnership, not through threats or sanctions. However, last year’s failure to pass an amendment in the US Congress to give India NATO-equivalent status under the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA) for the purposes of arms sales represents a setback for building a steady US-India military partnership.
Had it been enacted in its original form, the amendment (introduced by Congressman Brad Sherman and co-sponsored by several other representatives) would have provided India the same status as America’s NATO allies as well as Israel, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan for AECA-related purposes in relation to arms exports. The original amendment sought to elevate India’s status under the AECA so as to facilitate US arms sales to India in a wider and more forward-looking and timely manner. That would have been in keeping with the imperative to bolster the Indo-US relationship in order to check China’s muscular moves in the Indian Ocean region.
India is ideologically compatible with, and strategically central, to US interests. For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the US is pivotal to long-term Indian interests. Yet, paradoxically, the two countries’ strategic interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood. The farther one gets from India, the more congruent US and Indian interests become. But closer home to India, the two sides’ interests are divergent, including on how to deal with the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.
Against this background, does anybody seriously think that if China staged a 1962-style surprise military attack on India, the Trump-led US will come to India’s aid or even side with India? As it did during the 2017 Doklam standoff, the US would probably chart a course of neutrality in that war.
Take another example: Pakistan used the US-supplied F-16s against India on February 27, 2019, in a cross-border aerial raid following the Indian Air Force’s daring airstrike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot. Yet, the US chose to look the other way, despite admitting the “presence of US personnel that provide 24/7 end-use monitoring” on the F-16 fleet in Pakistan. Worse still, it rewarded Pakistan with $125 million worth of technical and logistics support services for the F-16s, saying the aid will not affect the “regional balance”.
The bottom line for India is that no friend, including the US, will truly assist it to end Pakistan’s terrorism. When terrorism is directed at just India, the American military will not seek to take out any of the US-designated “global terrorists” in Pakistan. For example, the US has done little more than put a $10 million bounty since 2012 on Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, one of the top terrorist leaders in Pakistan. This is India’s battle to fight and win on its own.
More broadly, a US policy approach that seeks to weaponize tariffs, trade and dollar dominance will compel India to hedge its bets. As the chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot L. Engel, warned last year, the Trump administration, by “attempting to coerce India into complying with US demands on a variety of issues”, has not only “introduced significant friction in our partnership with New Delhi” but also is alienating India.
Henry Kissinger once quipped that “it may be dangerousto be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal”. Trump is pursuing his foreign policy as if those words have the ring of truth. At the Houston rally, Trump claimed India has “never had a better friend” than him in the White House. Yet Trump’s transactional approach, which prioritizes short-term gains for the US even at the expense of long-term returns, could be reinforcing Indian scepticism about American reliability. The Modi government, clearly, values robust ties with the US, but such relations cannot be at the expense of India’s own interests.
Make no mistake: India has been a US foreign-policy bright spot. There is strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with India. And as Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has said, “The relationship between America and India is one with boundless potential”. It is important for both sides to focus on the relationship’s tremendous potential.
The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion, which are straining water resources, destroying ecosystems, jeopardizing livelihoods, and damaging human health. International cooperation can save riparian systems, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.
From the Tigris to the Indus and the Yangtze to the Nile, rivers were essential to the emergence of human civilization. Millennia later, hundreds of millions of people still depend on rivers to quench their thirst, grow food, and make a living. And yet we are rapidly destroying the planet’s river systems, with serious implications for our economies, societies, and even our survival.
China is a case in point. Its dam-building frenzy and over-exploitation of rivers is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia, destroying forests, depleting biodiversity, and straining water resources. China’s first water census, released in 2013, showed that the number of rivers – not including small streams – had plummeted by more than half over the previous six decades, with over 27,000 rivers lost.
The situation has only deteriorated since then. The Mekong River is running at a historically low level, owing largely to a series of Chinese-built mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. In fact, the Tibetan Plateau is the starting point of most of Asia’s major rivers, and China has taken advantage of that, not least to gain leverage over downstream countries.
China may be the world’s largest dam builder, but it is not alone; other countries, from Asia to Latin America, have also been tapping long rivers for electricity generation. The diversion of water for irrigation is also a major source of strain on rivers. In fact, crop and livestock production absorbs almost three-quarters of the world’s freshwater resources, while creating runoff that, together with industrial waste and sewage discharge, pollutes those very resources.
In total, almost two-thirds of the world’s long rivers have been modified, and some of the world’s longest – including the Nile and the Rio Grande – now qualify as endangered. Of the 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) that still flow freely from their mountain sources to the sea, most are in remote regions of the Arctic and in the Amazon and Congo basins, where hydropower development is not yet economically viable.
These trends strain water resources, destroy ecosystems, and threaten human health. For example, heavy upstream diversions have turned the deltas of the Colorado River and the Indus River into saline marshes. Moreover, lower river-water levels impede the annual flooding cycle, which in tropical regions helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally with nutrient-rich sediment. In periods of below-average rainfall, a number of rivers increasingly run dry before reaching the ocean, and even when they do make it, they are depositing less of the nutrients and minerals that are vital to marine life.
Globally, aquatic ecosystems have lost half of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s, and about half of all wetlands have been destroyed over the last century. A recent United Nations study warned that up to a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.
Humans are hardly exempt from the health consequences of river destruction. In Central Asia, the Aral Sea has all but dried up in less than 40 years, owing to the Soviet Union’s introduction of cotton cultivation, for which water was siphoned from the sea’s principal sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Today, particles blown from its exposed seabed – thick with salts and agricultural chemical residue – not only kill crops; they are sickening local people with everything from kidney disease to cancer.
Free-flowing rivers play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change, by transporting decaying organic material and eroded rock to the ocean. This process draws about 200 million tons of carbon out of the air each year.
In short, the case for protecting our rivers could not be stronger. Yet, while world leaders are often willing to pay lip service to the imperative of strengthening river protections, their rhetoric is rarely translated into action. On the contrary, in some countries, regulations are being rolled back.
In the United States, almost half of rivers and streams are considered to be in poor biological condition. Yet last October, President Donald Trump’s administration repealed “Waters of the US,” which had been introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in order to limit pollution of streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. Last month, the Trump administration replaced the rule with a far weaker version, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”
Likewise, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental rules in the name of economic growth. Among the casualties is the Amazon River, the world’s largest river in terms of discharge, which carries more water than the next ten largest rivers combined. Already, the Amazon basin in Brazil has lost forest cover over an area larger than the entire Democratic Republic of Congo – the world’s 11th-largest country.
The absence of water-sharing or cooperative-management arrangements in the vast majority of transnational river basins facilitates such destruction. Many countries pursue projects without regard for their cross-border or environmental effects.
One way to protect relatively undamaged river systems – such as the Amur, the Congo, and the Salween – would be to broaden implementation of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and add these rivers to the World Heritage List, alongside UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This would be in line with recent efforts in some countries – Australia, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, and New Zealand – to grant legal rights to rivers and watersheds. For such initiatives to work, however, effective enforcement is essential.
As for the rivers that are already damaged, action must be taken to restore them. This includes artificially recharging rivers and aquifers with reclaimed wastewater; cleaning up pollution; reconnecting rivers with their floodplains; removing excessive or unproductive dams; and implementing protections for freshwater-ecosystem species.
The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion. International cooperation can save them, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was set to become the world’s largest free trade agreement. But India’s withdrawal from it has thrown the negotiated trade bloc into imbalance and has underscored India’s qualms with China’s trade practices.
The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was supposed to establish the world’s largest trading bloc, covering half of the global population. But India’s abrupt withdrawal from the RCEP has undercut that goal. The decision came soon after the latest “informal” summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during which Xi acknowledged India’s China-related concerns over the RCEP and pledged to address them.
New Delhi’s entry into the RCEP would effectively create a China-India free trade agreement (FTA) via the backdoor, at a time when Chinese exports are already swamping the Indian market and questions are being raised domestically on Modi’s management of the economy.
The China factor was central to India’s pullout from the RCEP. India already has FTAs with 12 of the other 15 participating RCEP countries and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. Therefore, the main beneficiary of India’s entry into the RCEP would have been China.
Xi’s two “informal” summits with Modi since April 2018 have yielded little progress in the trade, border, and political issues dividing the world’s two most-populous countries. Indeed, at the second summit, held in the Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram in October, Xi sought to rope India into the RCEP in an effort to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with New Delhi.
When the summit concluded, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “President Xi has assured us that India’s concerns over the RCEP will be duly discussed. Although both Modi and Xi emphasized on the importance of having a rules-based global trading system, the Indian prime minister clarified to China that a deal should be balanced and equitable. China said it has heard India’s concerns and has agreed that there are still issues that need addressing.”
At the summit, Modi agreed to starting bilateral talks between the Chinese vice premier and the Indian finance minister over India’s uneven trade relationship with China, which is weighted heavily in Beijing’s favor. China’s trade surplus with India has jumped from less than $2.5 billion a month in 2014 when Modi took office to more than $5 billion a month.
The Indian commitment to bilateral trade talks represented a diplomatic win for Beijing, allowing it to initiate what it is good at: endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate. Ever since the talks to settle the border disputes began in 1981, China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush.
However, only three weeks after the Xi-Modi summit, India pulled out of the RCEP. And the bilateral trade talks that were agreed upon at the summit have yet to begin.
In November, the other 15 participating RCEP countries concluded text-based negotiations and sent the agreement to the legal team for cleanup. A joint statement following the conclusion of the negotiations in Bangkok said, “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues.”
It will not be easy to resolve India’s concerns. At a time of slowing Indian growth, India’s entry into the RCEP could exacerbate the country’s economic problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap Chinese goods.
China, while exploiting India’s rule of law to engage in large-scale dumping and other unfair practices, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses, including India’s $181-billion information technology industry. Beijing has also dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products.
Modi, in the hope of spurring greater foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, removed it from the official list as a “country of concern” for India. However, instead of greater FDI, the step invited greater Chinese dumping.
China’s cumulative FDI in India remains a fraction of its yearly trade surplus with the country. In fact, in the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks second behind America.
China’s surplus with the U.S., of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade or as a percentage of national gross domestic product (GDP), India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. India’s trade deficit with China in 2018 accounted for 2.2% of its GDP.
China’s unfair trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s vaunted “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Indeed, China’s annual trade surplus with India is significantly larger than India’s total defense spending, underscoring the extent to which India is underwriting Chinese hostility.
Against this background, India’s concerns are unlikely to be addressed in time for it to join the other participating countries at the RCEP signing ceremony in Hanoi next year.
Let’s be clear: unlike most other participating countries in the RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy. Rather, like the U.S., it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.
The U.S. and India have big trade deficits in goods with the rest of the world. Through bilateral or trilateral trade deals, they can leverage outsiders’ access to their huge markets to help shape trade norms and practices. This is already the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
Make no mistake – India needs to become more competitive in its own right because no barrier can be high enough to protect it from China’s trade prowess. But it also true that India cannot become more competitive without curbing China’s dumping and other rapacious trade practices.
An RCEP without India could create an imbalance within that trading bloc, just as Japan, Australia, and the ASEAN states have feared. It now seems likely that China will dominate the world’s largest free trade arrangement.
This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Project Syndicate: You support the vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific promoted by US President Donald Trump’s administration, but complain that it lacks strategic heft – a failing that has allowed Chinese expansionism in the region to continue unabated. Given how erratic the Trump administration has been – the recent escalation in US-Iran tensions being a case in point – will Trump’s vision for the Indo-Pacific go the way of Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia? What steps are needed to get back on track?
Brahma Chellaney: The Trump administration is nearing the end of its first term, and yet the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy has yet to gain real traction. If Trump loses the November election, his successor might replace the strategy with a new concept, as Trump did with Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
But even if Trump wins, there is no guarantee that his administration will add the needed strategic heft. On the contrary, as I explain in my latest PS commentary, the recent decision to expand the definition of the Indo-Pacific to include the Persian Gulf – “from Hollywood to Bollywood” has now become “from California to Kilimanjaro” – suggests that the Trump administration is succumbing to the same Middle East obsession as its predecessors. This will make it far more difficult to create a coherent, let alone effective, Indo-Pacific policy.
PS: In December, you pointed out that “for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice” – one that China, in particular, is unlikely to make. You then called for an “enforcement mechanism” in international law. What might such a mechanism look like, and what would it take to introduce it?
BC: Disputes will always arise between states. That is why international arbitration and adjudication exists. But even the International Court of Justice lacks any practical mechanism to enforce its rulings. As a result, they are regularly violated, especially by powerful actors.
China is a case in point. Though it acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, China rejected the arbitral proceedings brought by the Philippines against China in 2013 – proceedings that were instituted by UNCLOS’s dispute-settlement body, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In 2016, it rejected the panel’s final ruling that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law, calling it a “farce.”
Clearly, we need coercive enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all countries respect the decisions of adjudicative tribunals and courts. But the question of what precisely those mechanisms could look like has no easy answer. As long as power respects power and the weak remain meek, it may even be a moot point.
PS: You’ve warned that the Communist Party of China’s “continued reliance on brute power” to keep citizens in line “could eventually leave it on the ash heap of history.” In lieu of international action to rein in China, could internal pressures produce a check on Chinese expansionism? Or might they have the opposite effect, with Chinese President Xi Jinping doubling down on revanchist nationalism, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used the annexation of Crimea to revive his declining popularity?
BC: China is the world’s largest, strongest, and longest-surviving autocracy, and the CPC’s commitment to upholding the party’s primacy means insulating itself from liberalizing influences. But doing so, while still pursuing globalization, makes the country’s leadership increasingly vulnerable to domestic political shocks.
In fact, Communist China’s future will be shaped primarily by developments at home – and its leaders seem to know that. But their approach to protecting the CPC’s position has little to do with expansionism. They are overwhelmingly focused on maintaining domestic order in a more direct way. Tellingly, China’s official internal security budget is larger than its official military budget.
PS: You defended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision last August to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status and take steps “to ensure security during the potentially tumultuous transition,” arguing that India was doing what it must to protect itself from threats posed by China and Pakistan. Months later, millions of Kashmiris still lack Internet access, making this the longest digital shutdown ever imposed in a democracy. Is this really necessary? When can life return to some semblance of normalcy in J&K?
BC: Internet and cellphone services have now been restored in the Indian part of divided J&K. More important, of the three countries controlling parts of J&K – China, India, and Pakistan – only India had ever provided special semi-autonomous status, and its purpose in revoking that status was to counter security pressures from the other two.
J&K has long been a flash point between India and Pakistan, and between India and China. The China-Pakistan alliance against India was actually founded on the J&K issue. And in the Indian-administered J&K, the predominantly Sunni Muslim Kashmir Valley has become a hotbed of Pakistan-backed Islamists seeking to establish an Islamic emirate. Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the Islamists’ expulsion of the valley’s native Hindu minority, in one of the modern world’s swiftest and most successful ethnic-cleansing campaigns.
Given all of this, restoring normalcy in J&K is not up to India so much as it is up to the countries that have been sowing instability there.
BY THE WAY. . .
PS: You’ve touted the “phase one” US-China trade deal, tweeting that it “vindicates Trump’s unilateralism and transactional foreign-policy approach.” But the deal’s enforcement mechanism has a major weakness: if the US imposes tariffs in response to Chinese non-compliance – the core of the enforcement mechanism – China’s only recourse is to quit the agreement, returning both parties to square one. What makes you think the deal will survive?
BC: The deal is just a temporary truce, and it could unravel if China fails to honor its commitments. Moreover, the core issues have been left for the phase-two negotiations. It is significant that, despite the recent deal, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods remain largely in place.
Yet, with his tough line, Trump has wrested some concessions from the Chinese that his predecessors could not. And, given bipartisan US support for a harder line on China, the policy shift under Trump will likely outlast his presidency.
PS: If you could decide the foreign policy of the next US administration, what would your top three priorities be?
BC: First, shed the preoccupation with the Middle East and focus on long-term US strategic interests, especially in the Indo-Pacific – the actual Indo-Pacific, not Trump’s new expanded version – because it is now the world’s geopolitical center of gravity.
Second, get the global War on Terror back on track, including working systematically to undermine jihadist ideology. The only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology.
Third, strive to buttress a rules-based global order, in which the US leads by example, including by shunning defiant unilateralism.
PS: You’ve re-tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters and called for the international community to do more to help them. What do you propose?
BC: The Hong Kong protests show that a grassroots movement can wield considerable power, even against a state’s repressive machinery. To be sure, Xi cannot fully accede to the protesters, because that could encourage mainland Chinese to demand their own rights. But he cannot be allowed to crush them, either. To prevent a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Hong Kong, the international community must make it clear to China’s leaders that unleashing brute force would cost them dearly.
Failing to do so would have implications that extend far beyond Hong Kong. If China is allowed to suppress the Hong Kong protests violently, it could be emboldened to take stronger action against Taiwan, and to intensify its pursuit of territorial revisionism vis-à-vis India, Japan, Vietnam, and others.
PS: Modi seems to lack a robust vision for India’s place in the world. Is he too focused on domestic issues?
BC: The British-style parliamentary system is rife with inefficiencies even in the United Kingdom, as the Brexit mess has made clear. In India – a raucous democracy, which is more populous and diverse than all of Europe – its limitations are even more severe.
Consider the frequency of elections in India: no sooner have votes been counted in one state than elections loom in another state. The country is thus perpetually in election mode. This makes it easy to become mired in petty battles over domestic issues.
Bitter partisanship precludes national consensus on the challenges India confronts. Indeed, domestic politics deepens India’s internal fault lines, hobbling its ambition to be a great power.
We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Chellaney’s picks:
This well-researched book describes the 1986 meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The damage this wrought – from a human and environmental perspective – dwarfed that caused by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 25 years later, even though the latter incident included three separate meltdowns.
Plastic waste is choking our planet, and this book offers a blueprint for making it stop. Humans are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and draining our planet of its biodiversity. Plastic waste is at the center of these environmental challenges.
From the PS Archive
Chellaney highlights the havoc that China’s construction of mega-dams is wreaking on downriver countries. Read the commentary.
Chellaney calls for tough sanctions to stop Pakistan, a supposed ally, from continuing to aid and nurture terrorists. Read the commentary.
Around the web
In an interview with Fair Observer, Chellaney discusses what global developments – from the US to Iran – mean for India. Read the transcript.
In a commentary for the Hindustan Times, Chellaney argues that the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from neighbors but from polarized politics. Read the article.
Amid the raging media war between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters and critics, recent developments are helping to disprove one charge — that India is getting isolated internationally. From frustrating China’s latest UN Security Council (UNSC) move on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to forcing Malaysia to start addressing its growing trade surplus with India, including by importing more Indian sugar, Indian diplomacy has rarely been more robust. It was China that was isolated in the UNSC discussion on J&K.
US President Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit promises to raise India’s international salience. Building closer cooperation with the US, while shielding India’s longstanding partnership with Russia, has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. The US and India have never been closer than they are today, despite their differences over the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.
The showmanship, zeal and penchant for surprises that Modi’s diplomacy displayed in his first years in office have gradually given way to a more down-to-earth approach and greater pragmatism, including seeking to more resourcefully advance the country’s core interests. Under Modi, Indian diplomacy has been shedding its conventional methods and shibboleths to help build innovative dynamism. This remains a work in progress.
India is now more willing to act proactively. Consider the imperative to reverse eroding regional clout at a time when China is spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard. In Sri Lanka, no sooner had Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election than Modi sent his foreign minister to personally invite him to New Delhi. And then, to follow up on the discussions during Gotabaya’s visit, Modi’s national security adviser was in Colombo recently.
Another recent example is India’s pullout from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to forestall an India-China free trade agreement emerging via the backdoor. The decision not to join RCEP came barely three weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Mamallapuram summit, pleaded with Modi for India’s entry and offered to discuss Indian concerns bilaterally.
The trade deficit with China has more than doubled on Modi’s watch and now accounts for 2.2% of India’s GDP, which is higher than its total defence spending. At a time of slowing Indian economic growth, India’s RCEP entry would seriously exacerbate the country’s problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap goods from China, which keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses.
While Trump has got his phase-one deal to reduce the US trade deficit with China, India’s trade deficit with China continues to climb. In these circumstances, India’s RCEP entry would not only aid Beijing’s India policy of containment with engagement, including aggressively advancing commercial interests. In essence, China’s policy seeks to ensure it wins doubly — reap soaring profits on India trade while simultaneously working to box India in.
Through greater realism, India has progressively evolved a nondoctrinaire foreign-policy vision since it went overtly nuclear. It seeks to revitalize its economic and military security without having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. Given its nuclear-armed status, its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence has assumed a largely rhetorical meaning.
As one US official, Alice Wells, has acknowledged, India’s “broadening strategic horizons” have led to a “shift away from a passive foreign policy”. India, however, remains intrinsically diffident, with a tendency to confound tactics with strategy and unable at times to recognize the difference between being cautious and being meek. Caution helps avert problems, while meekness compounds challenges.
Making matters worse, India today is weighed down not just by a troubled neighbourhood but also by its increasingly murky politics. A dynamic diplomacy needs strong bipartisan support, especially for ambitious or risky undertakings. But given India’s fractious and obstreperous politics, such bipartisanship has been hard to come by. Consider the political nitpicking over the Indian Air Force’s daring strike inside Pakistan at Balakot.
The bitter partisanship at home, by sharpening national divisions, makes it more challenging to meaningfully reinvigorate foreign policy. Indeed, the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from China’s expansionism or the roguish activity of a scofflaw Pakistan but from polarized Indian politics. Given the threat from within, can India effectively deal with complex regional-security challenges, including the growing strategic axis between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of a powerful Leninist autocracy and an Islamist neighbour?
Modi may have become a lightning rod in India’s political churn. But make no mistake: Modi is a symptom of a longer-term trend of rancorous polarization in Indian politics that predates his arrival on the national scene and is likely to persist after he leaves office.
The world’s largest democracy has been in crisis for long. Its systemic problems have an important bearing on national security. Coping with mounting regional-security challenges while managing internal divisions will prove onerous unless India finds ways to control its growing divide.
US President Donald Trump once seemed to recognize that, as long as the US remains mired in endless wars in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. But that has not stopped him from perpetuating the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” US President Donald Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union speech. He had a point: military entanglements in the Middle East have contributed to the relative decline of American power and facilitated China’s muscular rise. And yet, less than a year after that speech, Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, bringing the United States to the precipice of yet another war. Such is the power of America’s addiction to interfering in the chronically volatile Middle East.
The US no longer has vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Shale oil and gas have made the US energy independent, so safeguarding Middle Eastern oil supplies is no longer a strategic imperative. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. Moreover, Israel, which has become the region’s leading military power (and its only nuclear-armed state), no longer depends on vigilant US protection.
The US does, however, have a vital interest in resisting China’s efforts to challenge international norms, including through territorial and maritime revisionism. That is why Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, promised a “pivot to Asia” early in his presidency.
But Obama failed to follow through on his plans to shift America’s foreign-policy focus from the Middle East. On the contrary, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate staged military campaigns everywhere from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Yemen. In Libya, his administration sowed chaos by overthrowing strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. In Egypt, Obama hailed President Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.
Yet in 2013, when the military toppled Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, Obama opted for non-intervention, refusing to acknowledge it as a coup, and suspended US aid only briefly. This reflected the Obama administration’s habit of selective non-intervention – the approach that encouraged China, America’s main long-term rival, to become more aggressive in pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, including building and militarizing seven artificial islands.
Trump was supposed to change this. He has repeatedly derided US military interventions in the Middle East as a colossal waste of money, claiming the US has spent $7 trillion since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Brown University’s Costs of War Project puts the figure at $6.4 trillion.) “We have nothing – nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing,” Trump said in 2018.
Furthermore, the Trump administration’s national-security strategy recognizes China as a “strategic competitor” – a label that it subsequently replaced with the far blunter “enemy.” And it has laid out a strategy for curbing Chinese aggression and creating a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region stretching “from Bollywood to Hollywood.”
Yet, as is so often the case, Trump’s actions have directly contradicted his words. Despite his anti-war rhetoric, Trump appointed war-mongering aides like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been described as a “hawk brimming with bravado and ambition,” and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in 2015 wrote an op-ed called “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Trump has pursued a needlessly antagonistic approach to Iran. The escalation began early in his presidency, when he withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (which Iran had not violated), re-imposed sanctions, and pressured America’s allies to follow suit. Furthermore, since last May, Trump has deployed 16,500 additional troops to the Middle East and sent an aircraft-carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, instead of the South China Sea. The assassination of Suleimani was part of this pattern.
Like virtually all of America’s past interventions in the Middle East, its Iran policy has been spectacularly counterproductive. Iran has announced that it will disregard the nuclear agreement’s uranium-enrichment limits. Trump’s sanctions have increased the oil-import bill of US allies like India and deepened Iran’s ties with China, which has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors.
Beyond Iran, Trump has failed to extricate the US from Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. His administration has continued to support the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels with US military raids and sorties. As a result, Yemen is enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Trump did order troops to leave Syria last October, but with so little strategic planning that the Kurds – America’s most loyal ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) – were left exposed to an attack from Turkey. This, together with his effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban (which is responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks), threatens to reverse his sole achievement in the Middle East: dramatically diminishing ISIS’s territorial holdings.
Making matters worse, after ordering the Syrian drawdown, Trump approved a military mission to secure the country’s oil fields. The enduring oil fixation also led Trump last April to endorse Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, just as Haftar began laying siege to the capital, Tripoli.
The Trump administration is unlikely to change course any time soon. In fact, it has now redefined the Indo-Pacific region as extending “from California to Kilimanjaro,” thus specifically including the Persian Gulf. With this change, the Trump administration is attempting to uphold the pretense that its interventions in the Middle East serve US foreign-policy goals, even when they undermine those goals.
As long as the US remains mired in “endless wars” in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. Trump was supposed to know this. And yet, his administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific seems likely to lose credibility, while the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East appears set to continue.
In his second term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to initiate a new practice on New Year’s Day: To discuss a shared vision of peace and prosperity in India’s subregion, Modi on Jan. 1 telephoned leaders of all neighboring nations other than his country’s two adversaries, China and Pakistan.
Modi’s exclusion of India’s two closely aligned neighbors that routinely flout international norms was intended to underscore the threat to regional peace from their growing axis. China, for example, kicked off the new year (and the new decade) by launching a major combat exercise along the Himalayan border with India, deploying its lightweight Type 15 tank, a new 155-mm howitzer, and other weapons from the Tibetan capital of “Lhasa to border defense frontlines.”
China’s challenge to norms and rules, of course, extends across the Indo-Pacific region.
For example, China’s recent aggressive move in the waters off Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands that Beijing claims are its “traditional fishing grounds,” as well as the ongoing Chinese coercion against Vietnamese hydrocarbon exploration within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, exemplify China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. That sea constitutes a critical missing link in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
How can the Indo-Pacific region be free and open if its most-important sea corridor, which links the Indian and Pacific oceans, is neither free nor open? China continues to incrementally extend its control in this critical corridor.
The Trump administration’s FOIP policy held great promise when it was unveiled by the president in a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November 2017 in the Vietnamese beach resort of Danang. The FOIP policy was seen as a much-needed successor to the U.S. Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which failed to take concrete shape.
The broadening of the U.S. policy focus to a wider region — the Indo-Pacific — was a response to the expanding ambitions of China, which, after building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, has started focusing on the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.
The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and embraced by India and the United States. India has been including the “free and open” phrase in joint statements with strategic partners.
For example, India, the world’s second-largest peninsula, and Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state, last year identified a shared vision for “a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” As U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong put it, “India as a nation has invested in a free and open order.”
Today, it has become imperative to build a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order, free of coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Establishing such an order is the goal of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad.” The Quad’s future, however, is linked to the U.S.-led FOIP strategy.
The Trump administration has still to provide strategic heft to its FOIP policy. It has defined the policy’s objectives but is still searching for the effective means to achieve the ends. Indeed, like Tokyo, Washington no longer refers to its FOIP vision as a “strategy.” Without strategic content, the U.S.-led FOIP policy is unlikely to yield meaningful results.
In this light, there is a real risk that Trump’s FOIP policy, like Obama’s pivot to Asia, could fail to gain traction.
Indeed, as highlighted by Trump’s escalation of America’s conflict with Iran by taking out the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. risks getting further mired in the Islamic world.
Soleimani, considered the most important person in Iran after Ayatollah Khamenei, was the first major foreign military leader the U.S. has killed since 1943, when it eliminated Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the supposed architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Trump may have won the first round against Iran, which retaliated weakly to the Soleimani assassination. But make no mistake: A second round seems inevitable.
In this light, developments in the Middle East could distract American policymakers and result in Trump’s FOIP policy — like Obama’s pivot to Asia — remaining more rhetorical than real. In fact, the pivot got lost somewhere in the arc stretching from the Middle East to Ukraine.
To be sure, Trump’s lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy — a shift that will outlast his presidency as it enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.
According to the philanthropist George Soros, “The greatest — and perhaps only — foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping’s China.”
The Trump administration has sought to primarily employ economic levers to rein in China, including through a gradual decoupling of the American and Chinese economies in key strategic sectors. However, it must also employ strategic levers, or else China’s territorial and maritime revisionism will remain untamed. Beijing has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs.
U.S. leadership and resolve are essential to build a credible counter to Chinese expansionism. But the roles of the other major democracies are also important.
In this context, Abe’s postponement of his India visit due to unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Assam could only have pleased Beijing. A Modi-Abe summit in the Assamese capital of Guwahati, followed by the two leaders’ visit to a new peace museum in Manipur state that commemorates the Battle of Imphal between the Imperial Japanese Army and Allied forces during World War II, would have highlighted northeast India’s role as the bridge to the rest of Asia.
The Assam violence, although short-lived, will make already-wary Japanese companies more reluctant to invest in India’s remote northeast — to the delight of China, which doesn’t want any foreign investment or even multilateral lending going there. China actually claims an entire northeastern Indian state — Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times larger than Taiwan.
With private Japanese investors averse to taking risks, Japan must provide greater Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans in order to finance socioeconomic projects in India’s northeast. India, however, is already Japan’s largest ODA recipient. Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake projects in India’s sensitive northeast, as well as in that country’s strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Against this background, an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies isn’t on the horizon. But if democratic powers leverage their bilateral and trilateral partnerships to generate progress toward such a concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable in the years ahead.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaneyis a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”